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Higher Education: Worth The Money?

So before Christmas I wrote to my MP Connor Burns about the changes to HE funding and what it could mean for my kids going to university in the future, creatives like my Bang2writers on low wages and people from poorer backgrounds, especially those with dependants like I was when I went to university. As mentioned on Twitter yesterday then, he has responded to my email:

Read it here.

For the record, I have no personal beef with Connor Burns and have had my views and questions entertained by him not only here, but “off blog” on a personal concern regarding schooling in Bournemouth; in addition his colleague Tobias Ellwood also answered my queries regarding British Children’s television a couple of years’ back. So whilst I am no fan of the Coalition, please refrain from Tory-bashing for its own sake in the comments as I would instead like to hear your thoughts on funding, education and how it should be funded in your opinions.


The scholarship fund looks hopeful. When I was a single mum, private charities and a mature student bursary got me through university. Though I qualified for a dependant’s allowance I did not have to pay back as well as the standard student loan, none of this money even vaguely went far enough, especially when what the dependant’s allowance SUM was changed each year, as did what I was *allowed* to spend it on! I was by no means unique; I knew many parents who had their hands horribly tied by the system under the previous government and found themselves short by many, many hundreds of pounds, sometimes thousands, often through no fault of their own as various thresholds and guidelines seemed to change constantly. Whilst university was a MISERABLE time for me financially and incredibly stressful, I do count myself as lucky; some never made it out the other side and ended up back on benefits forever. This seems ironic, especially when those at the DSS were often obscure, unhelpful and sometimes rude when I or my peers asked for help in getting through uni, which many of us of were turned down for; if they’d just HELPED us, they’d never see us again!! So *if* the Coalition is going to take the needs of poorer students – particularly those with dependants – really seriously, then this fund could be a good start. But like many things when it comes to the Coalition, we’re not told exactly how this fund is going to work and I would like to hear much more on this, especially whether the other fund Burns mentions in the letter is the same one, as I wasn’t really sure.

Allowing part time students access to student loans is a good idea. I went to university full time with a dependant not only because I thought it would be the quickest way to getting ahead, but because it was best option in terms of getting access to money to do it; I literally had none otherwise. However this was a very stressful option in terms of childcare, getting work done and the spectre of fees and living costs loomed over my head like a terrible black cloud constantly for three years. Had I been able to go more at my own pace then, I might not have felt so bad and may have done better in my course and my son would have been living in a less stressier environment. Similarly, this *may* allow others to access HE and work at the same time, which could change things considerably in terms of the financial deadweight of fees – psychologically, if nothing else.

*If* it starts as it means to go on, it could aid consistency. If you went to university in 2000 like me and paid any attention to what came next in the fees farago under Labour, you’ll know you had one threshold to pay under and those who came next – depending on the year – apparently had others. For me, I only have to earn approximately £10K to start paying money back, whereas a colleague of mine who went just a few year’s later and apparently has a threshold of approximately £15K, as Burns mentions in his letter. The concern for me now then – looking at Connor Burns’ letter and the various different thresholds he quotes – is whether this will start as it means to go on or whether this will jump about as Labour apparently re-worked and tweaked theirs.

Questions I still have:

– Why is it apparently free for those in Scotland and Wales – and not England?

– How is the scholarship fund going to work?

– How are parental contributions going to be worked out?

– How are those from poorer backgrounds with dependants going to be supported?

– Will the thresholds stay the same for repayment?

– I’ve found it difficult to find and compile unbiased, useful information on what the fees mean in real terms and how the cuts impact on our universities and the kind of education they can provide, yet I am a trained teacher and creative and VERY interested in this subject. How is the Coalition going to ENSURE that teenagers and their parents have the right information to make an informed choice?

– Equally, if the Coalition is as committed to ensuring poorer students have the same chances as those better off, how are they going to ensure students from poorer backgrounds know what is available to them, ie. the scholarship fund?

– It’s said you have to speculate to accumulate, so when we’re going into a notoriously low-paid industry such as the media (where so many do not have a minimum wage equivalent and have to diversify on assorted “day jobs”), is it “worth” going to university to study a creative or humanities subject, regardless of whether we end up earning £21K and have to pay back these fees?

– Let’s talk VALUE FOR MONEY: put simply, is the average humanities and/or creative course **worth** between £6-9K in fees in terms of resources available and contact time in terms of tutor meetings, seminars and lectures? Are students on other courses – ie. medical, science – getting better value on these things? Can courses actually offer MORE for our money, or is it that the new students will simply have to make do with the same for more money? Is that good business sense?

– Similarly, is it time to ask the tough questions? Are there too many universities, running the same *types* of courses? Is it that market is flooded? Or have universities had their hands tied by government red tape and bureacracy? Is it time for HE institutions to be “accountable” like other businesses or should HE even *be* a business?

MY VERDICT: That’s still A LOT of questions and I’m still particularly concerned for poorer students, especially those with dependants. I feel frustrated I can’t seem to get access to the information needed to be able to make an informed decision about my son’s education – and he’s not going for years yet! – so heaven knows how the average student going in the next year or two feels. I’m also still massively troubled by the jump in fees, especially when it comes to value for money – which surely Tories in particular must understand. I’m not altogether convinced the educational advantage is necessarily “worth” the financial risk when it comes to certain courses or universities and NOT because I feel some courses are “pointless” either. Whilst it’s very easy to write off many courses as (apparently) “useless” like media subjects (and I’ve certainly seen a lot posted online citing this as the case on forums, message boards and Facebook), this is bullshit when we consider media products are not created by MAGIC, people actually have to learn to produce them. What’s more, there are many, many courses – especially in the humanities like English, History and Law – which have also massively suffered under the cuts, which surely any sensible person could never say are automatically “useless”. Where are are we going to get the thinkers, historians, writers, actors, teachers and similar of the future? Are they all going to be home-educated??


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3 thoughts on “Higher Education: Worth The Money?”

  1. When my disabled son may lose every service he needs to live a normal life, and will certainly lose many of those services, I can't get worked up about optional extras like HE paid for by people other than the student. If someone wants HE badly enough, they'll find the way to get there in the end, and I really don't see why they think others should pay for it for them. Disabled people cannot say the same for their needs. In an ideal world, of course I'd like to see students getting free access to education, and for what it's worth, I am uneasy about the scale and pace of the cuts, but this is not an ideal world, and since no-one ever died from not being funded to go to Uni, I'd rather save my protests for those for whom cuts mean life and death decisions.

  2. Hi Caitlyn, I sympathise completely and thanks for your comment. For the record, I think the cuts to disability living allowance is reprehensible and wrong and I do not support them.

    However this is a blog about screenwriting and the issues surrounding it, of which access to Higher Education is one. On this basis, I'm not convinced access to HE *is* an "optional extra" as you say. I believe, if you have no money, education is literally your only hope. The fact then you need money to get money seems very worrying, as it could potentially put education only in the hands of the rich or very well off. I don't see how this can aid society in the long term.

    My life and my own son's life (and thus the family I had after) was transformed, quite literally, by having access to HE – where would we be now without it? Probably still on benefits. Access to Higher Education can help people be upwardly mobile and break cycles of poverty and this has included disabled people in the past. I have several disabled Bang2writers who have had their lives transformed by HE just as much as those with dependants.

    As you say, this is not an ideal world, but GOOD access to HE benefits all of us IMHO.

  3. Caitlyn

    I understand your POV, however, the cuts mean that if someone needs to obtain HE for a career or a decent standard of living, no matter how bad they want it, they simply cannot obtain it because of said cuts. Especially with England being well on its way to becoming the most expensive country to study in. Denying financial aid to people seeking HE, reinforces the class hierarchy and decreases social/economic mobility.

    As for the 'I don't really see why they think others should pay for it for them.'

    I've seen a lot of poverty growing up and education is the only way out in the UK. The cuts directly correlate with a decrease in the quality of life across all areas (HE, Healthcare for the disabled, the economy). The biggest problem England has is its spending problem, all these credit cards enable people to spend money they don't have, hence incurring a greater debt. IMO, the government needs to crackdown on this harder and leave the healthcare and education systems (which is what made England so great IMO) alone.

    I personally think the increase in fees and cutbacks on HE aid is disgusting. So much for the information-age.

    I am aware HE isn't the only area being slowly strangled of its' grants and allowances, but its certainly one of great importance. I refuse to compare one area of cuts to another. Being a screenwriter however, you need to be able to afford to live as well as write and like I said HE aids initially allowed such freedom. Seems England is rapidly shifting focus from living to just surviving. Dire times.

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