The Budget was announced at the end of last month, and with it, the 2019 recommendation to lower the student loan repayment threshold was revisited. The move comes after maximum tuition fees trebled in 2006 and again in 2012. Though the original idea was to create a range of different fees being charged, surprise surprise, every university chose to charge the maximum they could. This meant that the majority of students automatically ended up with over £27,000 in debt — which rockets up to £37,000 if you decided to venture north of the border. Oh, and don’t forget to add the 4.1% interest rate while you're studying — yes, that’s a higher rate than most mortgages, and yes, that is the sound of your bank balance crying.
Now, I’m not sure that there are many students who genuinely think these fees are justified. Universities sell themselves as a whole set of nebulous “experiences” in addition to education — but it’s got to be quite the experience to be worth it. The flaw in that plan is that the last couple of years have been anything but normal, the wonderful “experience” in question has largely been online, and it was illegal to socialise. Despite petitions and parliament debates for a fee reduction, the government has decided to go the opposite way entirely and lower the repayment threshold to £23,000. Fun!
Except not really, because this proposal is only the latest in a long line of government plans designed to screw students over. Cast your minds back to the deepest, darkest depths of lockdown number one when Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Professor Chris Witty and Sir Patrick Vallance graced our screens every evening with a series of increasingly morbid and depressing updates. Forty-three, to be precise. Ten of those mentioned university students, and two of those don’t count in any way, shape, or form because they were insincere thank-you’s. I think it’s safe to say that we were, for the most part, forgotten about.
A quick recap in case you needed a reminder — students were made to return to university in September and October 2020, then blamed for the inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks. Then there was the rent repayment debacle, when we had to pay for rooms we couldn’t legally occupy, which then took months to even be investigated. Next, we were accused of being selfish granny killers (which, coming from the man who refused to wear a mask even when sat next to Sir David Attenborough, is a bit rich), and students were told to return to campus on or after 17 May — which for many was entirely pointless because it was exam season and teaching was largely over. Then, over the summer it was announced that 50% of funding for creative arts courses is being cut, in favour of STEM subjects.
There’s also been a complete failure to address the worsening student mental health crisis — a recent study by the Office of National Statistics shows that 37% of first-year university students displayed “moderate to severe symptoms of depression,” which is worryingly higher than the 16% of the general adult population in Great Britain who suffer the same symptoms. And now, despite failing to properly address any of these issues, ministers are calling for the loan repayment threshold to be lowered, a move which the UCU has called “regressive,” as lower earners will inevitably feel the burden much more than their higher-earning counterparts, who are would have been able to pay their debts off in the first place.
I get why students are an easy party to blame, I really do. It’s so much easier for the government to shift the blame onto young people than admit any wrongdoing on their own part. To continue to feed into the narrative that students are selfish, immature partygoers who can’t see the bigger picture and stay at home for the greater good. To assume that young people aren’t interested in politics and won’t take any notice. But my problem with the new policy, or indeed, anything of the things I outlined earlier, doesn’t really lie there.
My issue is that by continuing to ignore students and shift the blame onto them when things go wrong, the government is, once again, being woefully short-sighted. Among the wider population of young people, students had one of the highest turnout rates at the 2016 referendum, and tactical voting is purportedly highest in constituencies where there’s a large student population. It shouldn’t really take much to work out that, as a government, or in fact any political party, students are a useful demographic to keep on your side.
Sidelining us, or denying our existence altogether before slapping us with a whole load more debt isn’t helping anyone. They need to start building a relationship with their future voters now rather than catering to the needs of an older generation that won’t be able to reap the benefits of the changes being implemented. It’s all very well banging on about “Build Back Better” — but that has to include everyone.
Illustration: Sarah Knight