Tuesday 19 July 2011

Debt free university degree: utopia or reality?

I made a simple mention on Twitter recently that it was possible, not so long ago, to complete a university education debt free. I was asked to explain whether this was a joke or a serious comment.
Here is my story, and one that was shared by thousands of people in my generation. In the 1970's I took a 3 year Bachelor of Arts with Honours course at a university in the north of, England. At that time the bill for the course fees never even came to the student: the bill for all government approved degree courses went straight from the university administration to the treasury office of the student’s home town, and was paid without question, automatically.  So long as the student was accepted to continue year by year, the arrangement continued: it was not expected that a student would fail the course, or have to repeat any part of it, but I know there were provisions for these eventualities. The same level of support continued one year later when I followed an approved teacher training course.
It has to be said that the course fees in UK were never anywhere near US levels: currently, the real cost of a first degree, excluding laboratory costs, is less than 10,000 pounds per year. Even so, the policy represented a major financial commitment by succeeding governments of both political parties. This is not the place to give statistics or quote the laws which made this possible, it’s all available at reliable research sites.
In fact, it gets even better: the course fees were paid automatically from central government funds. In addition, the student’s home city administration could provide money for living expenses and the cost of study materials. This additional money was not automatic, it was means-tested, meaning that it depended on the student’s family circumstances. There were many young people who received this additional funding even though their parents were both working and earned professional salaries. For instance, an important part of the calculation of entitlement to the additional funding included the number of siblings in full time education.
So, no, my reference to a debt free university education was not a joke, it was a genuine reflection of my own experience. I feel almost guilty now, in the light of current circumstances. As you may know, in UK part of the fees, around 3,500 pounds, are paid by the student and his/her parents, and the provision offered by government is in the form of a loan which has to be repaid later. On top of that, fees in UK universities are set to triple within the next 2 years, which is likely to cause anxiety for many students and their parents.
If you have been doubting me up to now, wait for the next part: in the 1980's, after I had been working for the local government as a teacher I applied to study for a part-time Masters at another university. The local administration approved this course as being directly related to my work, and the course fees were paid in full by my employer.
Did the government pay my course fees and those of my contemporaries because it was awash with money and could not think of anything else to spend it on? Certainly not: the governments of those years recognized the need for a highly trained and qualified work force that would provide the innovations that would lead the country to prosperity, and placed a high value on the equality of opportunity regardless of the student’s own financial means. Education as a motor of social change was the watchword.
As you can see in an earlier post, at age 53 I have just completed an on-line MBA with the private ESERP Business School here in Spain. I signed up for the course out of my own personal interest, and I have been able to pay for it thanks to the career I have developed as a result of the university degrees I passed 30 years ago. I am a privileged person, together with many others of my generation, in that I benefitted from a high quality university education which was made available to me debt free.

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