Saturday, December 18, 2010

Would you have paid £27,000 for your degree? Students are rebelling on the streets over the potential tripling

Students are rebelling on the streets over the potential tripling in university tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year from 2012. But will there be a silent revolt as many more choose not to go on to higher education, deciding that the fees and living costs are unaffordable? We asked recent and some well-known graduatesabout their time at university and whether they thought that going to university was worth it financially. Would they have been prepared to pay £9,000 a year for the experience? And what advice would they share with the next generation of would-be students?

A L Kennedy

Novelist, Costa Book of the Year winner 2007, and comedian. Studied at Warwick University "I couldn't have gone to university if I had had to pay anything, or go into debt. I wouldn't be doing my job, paying tax. I wouldn't have the life I enjoy.

"I'd say to students, keep protesting. Try to think ahead of the police – they want you to be violent, because then they get more powers and the focus of the debate moves. They will kettle you to provoke and then offer releases into areas where they want you to do damage – try to keep control. Keep reminding them they're next for the cuts. Keep the focus on the real issues – the destruction of our future and our becoming a third world country. In third world countries people rely on charities to send their kids to school. That's what's next for us. And thanks for reminding voters of the power they can have. If I'd done more when I was a student, you wouldn't have to be doing this. For which I apologise."

Marina Lewycka

Novelist. Studied at Keele University, University of York and King's College, London "My parents were quite poor, and having that debt would have been a worry. After my degree (at Keele), I did an MA (at York) and started a PhD (at King's College, London). I worked as a waitress, picked strawberries, helped make a film, taught mainly part-time in adult education classes, the Open University and various schools and colleges, worked for a local authority and did freelance work for Age Concern and Mencap, became a mother, and wrote poetry, plays and various novels. If I'd had a debt of £27,000 to pay off, I'd have probably gone straight to work in a bank or something like that."

Her advice for students today? "Go to university, continue to protest peacefully but imaginatively against the fees, and fight for your own vision for higher education through a positive and winnable campaign. Then get to work on society as a whole."

Dan Snow

Television and radio historian (Battlefield Britain, Norman Walks). Studied at Balliol, Oxford "I would have spent twice that on my university education. It has been beyond a shadow of doubt the best investment I have ever made. Everything I have today, my entire way of life, is built on foundations laid at university.

"I didn't have to start paying back the £9,000 until I was in a decent job and through my early 20s it meant a few less pints a week, delayed my entry to the housing market by a couple of years and prevented me from buying a nice car. Hardly a sacrifice. I am also very conscious that by paying it I was allowing the university to build up funds to admit people from poorer backgrounds.

"Friends of mine have spent 10 times that on awful one-bedroom flats which have then tumbled in value. A good university education is inalienable; it is my most precious possession."

Lucy Porter

Stand-up comedian and guest on Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You. Studied at Manchester "I wouldn't have been able to afford the mind-boggling sum of £27,000. I wanted to go to Manchester University because it was a brilliant course in English language and literature and tragically, because it was where the Stone Roses were from. The cost of it wasn't an issue.

"Now students will have to be frugal at university. Drink is where the majority of my money went when I was a student. So students are going to have to start home brewing and baking.

"These are lean times. University education is the most fabulous thing that money can buy now. University shaped my life and is the basis for what I do now.

"I am terrified now about my daughter Emily's university education.She is 12 weeks old and I should have started saving up before she was conceived!"

Kirsty Wark

Journalist and television presenter, and a regular on BBC 2's Newsnight.Studied at Stirling and Edinburgh "I went to Stirling University for a year then Edinburgh University, and graduated in 1976 when I was 21. It would have been a huge thought to take on such debt. I think students will need much more detailed information about what each university is offering when the new tuition fees kick in – guarantees on contact time, academic team, size of tutorials, profile of director of studies, more on pastoral care, study facilities and so on."

David Williams, 28

University: Middlesex University, Hendon Business College

Job: Unemployed

Degree: Business and Marketing

Would you have paid £27,000 for your degree? "No, definitely not. For that sort of money there would need to have been more cast-iron guarantees from my university about what jobs there would be at the end of it. More importantly, they'd have to introduce students to more potential employers, open their contacts book and help out with the transition between the study-bubble and the world of work."

What will be the impact of higher fees on tomorrow's students? "I definitely think more people will cut costs by staying at home. I think this could have a negative effect on people's social development. I stayed at home and I envied friends who went away to university. It's a time when you're supposed to find yourself, test out your character, realise your capabilities – it's hard work doing that when every day at 5 o'clock you go back to your Mum."

Advice for would-be students? "If you're going to spend £9,000 a year at university, you've got to make it work. A good degree is important, sure. But what's more important is a good classification at the end of it. If you're not academic, don't go through university, pay £27,000 and end up with a 2:2. It's just not worth the drama. Or the debt."

Aram Balakjian, 27

Salary: £50,000

University: Bournemouth University

Job: MD web design company

Degree: Computer Visualisation and Animation

Would you have paid £27,000 for your degree? "In my case, yes. The knowledge of computer-programming I picked up has served me well as a web developer. But I don't think anybody should judge a degree by the price-tag. Ask yourself – is this degree worth doing for me? Can I excel in this field? I'm sure in a lot of situations the answer is 'yes'. In the ones where students say 'no', don't waste your time doing something that doesn't pass this litmus test."

How important a part has your degree played in your career so far? "If I'd been certain of what I wanted to do, then a short course outside of university, specifically tailored towards web design, would have been a quicker, more cost-effective path to success. Saying that, as a 17-year-old lad I only had a general interest in the area of programming, so university was probably the right step for me. It gave me breathing space and a chance to figure out exactly what my skill set was."

Advice for would-be students? "I'd say it's important to choose your degree wisely. If you can, think carefully about the future and try to work in tandem with the economy's wants and desires. Even more so now, with that whopping price tag attached. If a sector of the economy is growing, it's more likely there will be a job at the end of it. Five years ago this wasn't so important – lots of people studied what they wanted to, then came out and fell into a career."

Bex Cunnah, 25

Salary: £26,500

University: Manchester University

Job: Account manager for an ad agency

Degree: American Studies

Would you have paid £27,000 for your degree? "When you look at the nitty-gritty of it – the units, the tutor time, the amount of lectures – it wouldn't be worth that amount of money. Saying that, I would still have taken American Studies just for the life experience it gave me. There's a growing idea that doing a degree is all about the job, salary and position you land at the end of it. But university is about getting an education. Education is enriching in its own right. It's invaluable really."

Do you think there are enough alternative career paths for those unable to afford a degree? "I think government should be offering tax breaks and incentives which encourage the big industries to start more apprenticeship schemes. There were hardly any around when I was at school and there were zero media apprenticeships. Businesses will really need to pick up the slack by offering young people a credible, alternative way to pursue their choice of career and they need government support to make it happen. Otherwise we could see a generation of wasted talent."

Advice for would-be students? "Don't invest in a degree expecting a job at the end of it. There is absolutely no guarantee of employment. I bagged my job with an ad agency because of the year of work experience I did at the Commonwealth Film Festival. In the end, this proved more important than my degree. This country is so overpopulated with graduates and so much is governed by the extra-curricular experience you have – that's what sets you apart. So I'd say this: choose your degree based on what you're passionate about, not on what you want to be earning in five years' time."

Dan Cantorna, 26

Salary: £35,000

University: Bristol University

Job: Business systems analyst

Degree: Chemical Physics

Would you have paid £27,000 for your degree? "Knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have paid a penny more for my degree – certainly not £27,000. Based on the number of hours of contact time I had at university and the proposed cost of the new degrees, I would have paid more per hour of education than I earn per hour today. That doesn't offer value for money in my opinion. Plus, most of my graduate knowledge is never applied. Atom-splitting, scientific equations, none of it is relevant in my day-to-day job. It's only really the soft-skills – the ability to use my time effectively, the ability to pitch – these are the things that matter. You can acquire these in cheaper ways, I'm sure of it."

Would facts and figures on the earning potential of a course make choosing a degree any easier? "I'd question whether that's to do with the course itself or the calibre of the people who are attracted to the course. In my experience, the people I knew reading law would have had success regardless of their subject choice because they were highly motivated, competitive people. For that reason I'd advise students to be cautious of assigning too much significance to any stats like these."

Advice for would-be students? "With the higher fees, I'd say, think very carefully about it. Ask yourself: is this degree what I really want to do? Many people in our generation ended up dropping out of their degrees. Doing that with £3,000 of debt is tolerable. Doing it with £10,000 or £20,000 could be life-changing."

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