University 2012: Do or die??

There’s been a lot in the press lately about the rise in student fees causing a drop in applications, particularly in those of mature students. It’s something that interests me, not only because I am a student myself, but also being a student in the past (back in the days of the undergrad) I’ve been through the whole do-I-don’t-I-pay-thousands-of-pounds-towards-my-‘future’ dilemma.

For those of us that don’t have bags of money- or to be PC- are less privileged than others; going to university is a big decision, at least it was for me. I remember for years and years, since my secondary school days, I was adamant I wasn’t going. It was a no brainer to me. It was simply too much money. I had a frugal upbringing which in easily translatable terms (this is for you 90′s kids) meant sharing a packet of Hubba Bubba between myself and two brothers my entire childhood. That’s one and 2/3 of a Hubba Bubba each (as you can see despite our money troubles my education didn’t suffer). I’d always rejected the idea of university because it seemed like a lot of money being spent on something rather intangible. What exactly do you get at the end of it? A massive minus figure in your bank account and a piece of paper to show for it?

Even when I started university at the ripe old age of 18 back in 2007 *shudders* the fees had gone up dramatically. My brother graduated in 2008 and paid a lot less than me. The very idea of paying £9,000 for one year, when I paid that for my entire degree, is terrifying. I genuinely believe if I had been faced with paying as much as that, I wouldn’t have gone.

Which is why I was surprised when I saw the latest figures.

Perhaps I am naive or have forgotten how alluring the idea of university is to young(er than me) people, but I thought the decrease in applications would be far greater. Logistically, when you look at it, 8.7% of how ever many thousands normally apply each year is a lot of people. However the figures still surprised me.

Clearly I underestimate the power of the student loan (that great expanse of money you forget isn’t yours, or the tuition fees you forget need to be paid whilst you’re busy guzzling down Tesco brand vodka and value coke from your local outlet). Or maybe future students – many of them having come straight from education – don’t realise how terrible the job market is or how unlikely a degree is to guarantee you any job in the future.

All sounds rather damming doesn’t it? Why have I reverted back to being a student then, you ask? How can I be so hypocritical? Sometimes I don’t know the answer to that. But I know that I couldn’t have afforded 9k a year.

I guess I’m biased because I have hindsight and the knowledge of what has been and gone. I struggle with the idea that young people are willing to part with so much cash because when I look back, still struggle to grasp what all of mine went on… I worked out one day (and you already know how good at maths I am), sat in my prison-like halls of residence, roughly how much each one hour lecture was costing me. My tuition fees were around £3,300 each year and studying English with Media Arts I had a mere 9 hours contact time a week. Yep.. that’s right, 9 hours. I spend longer than that at university now (doing my Masters) in one day.

It was the same every year I was there, though of course the amount of free time I utilised to do work changed. But it was always 9 hours or less contact time. With an academic year that lasted from October to the beginning of May, I worked out that each one hour lecture equated to roughly £75.

Seventy five British whoppers, to sometimes listen to a mad old codger stand behind a podium for one hour, reading off a piece of paper (and there’s always one). Times that by three and you’ve got your 2012 uni fees for an English degree, without generalising too much. Pretty shocking, don’t you agree? And to think that none of this money includes all the extra and never mentioned before necessities you are required to buy once you enter the realm of student status. None of it goes towards books (which are needed in abundance) or equipment such as photo paper, films and mounts and the like which I needed to buy for my Media Arts modules. Any resources such as these are listed in the non-existent document detailing what additional funds you will be expected to procure to satisfy your degree’s needs.

Even paper in the library, for all those essays you seem to finish one hour, or 20 minutes in my case, before the deadline; 5 pence a time. And don’t forget they ask for double spacing! Economically it’s cheaper to buy a printer and ink.

Not only this, but during my degree at my university none of this money went towards trips, days out or exhibitions. Theatre outings and gallery visits were suggested and encouraged via emails; the latter in particular was recommended in order to help diversify your inner thought process and bulk out your portfolio, but such excursions were never organised by the university, they were to be funded by yourself.

And so you see, when I gather up all this information together and consider whether it was realistically worth £9000, let alone £27000, to receive 9 hours a week listening and talking to some brilliant, but also incredibly shoddy lecturers; I stroke my non-existent beard and think ‘hmmmm’.

Of course not all courses are like mine was. I met people whose timetables were far more demanding. But this begs the question of whether in future, self-taught and self-disciplined courses like English are likely to suffer because students won’t see a fair return in their investment (if it could clarify as that anymore). Higher fees demand higher standards, which is why the fact that Cambridge saw a 2% rise in applications, isn’t surprising.

One thing you don’t realise before becoming a higher education student and living independently is how expensive everything is. You think life is great with your NUS Extra card and 10% off Dorothy Perkins, New Look and Topman. But the cost of food, uni resources, alcohol and alfresco living takes its toll on your bank balance, and with fees increasing by such a devastating amount, though the students of 2012 will be unprepared for the costs, younger brothers and sisters might not be.

The weight of your student debt and the reality of it doesn’t hit you until you finish university and feel your way, blind and flailing, back into the real world. With debts of over £40000 a likelihood for many and job prospects looking grim for some time to come, are applications likely to increase after the nigh 10% drop, in the coming years?

Who knows? But one thing’s for sure – future students are fools if they don’t raise their own and others expectations in their chosen courses to get the best they possibly can for their cash. Maybe that £9000 a year will never include having all your text books bought for you, but in this case you should endeavour to seek out a university that provides the best of everything else.

With two seminars each week for Engish and two lectures totalling in six hours, and three hours each week for Media Arts, sometimes less when we only had tutorials; I spent most of my fresher days in Primark, watching 4oD or sleeping. That’s part of the beauty of being a university student, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a bum and get away with it (unless you’re at Oxford or something..) But I hope – I’d like to think – that students this year and in the future think twice about missing that early morning lecture as a matter of principal, even if it’s one given by the mad old codger.