Photo: Josh Asker
Photo: Josh Asker

Adam Harmsworth, Coventry Socialist Party and graduate

The Tories have snuck through a massive change in student finance. ‘Plan 5’ loans apply to new students from August this year and, crucially, they lower the salary threshold at which graduates start paying back their loans from £27,295 to £25,000.

That means far more low-wage graduate workers will have to start paying back, squeezing poorer graduates’ incomes from the start. If you were earning £30,000 a year, your student loan repayments go up from £243 a year to £450.

The debt is also written off after 40 years instead of the previous 30, leaving these 21-year-old graduates in debt almost until retirement, unless they’re one of the few graduates lucky (or well-connected) enough to land a big salary.

Also, if a student’s family income is just £25,000 or more, they cannot get the full maintenance loan for living costs. The maximum loan available to students is just £9,978 for those living away from home – far from enough to live on.

Reality of studying with fees

My parents saved up over years so that I could go to uni under Blair’s tuition fees. When the Con-Dem government tripled tuition fees, even with those savings and a student loan, I still had to get a part-time job after my first year.

I typically worked 20 hours a week – time I should have been able to spend studying!

Students from wealthier families don’t have to worry about that. Those that can afford to pay the tuition fees from the start and can fund three years of living aren’t burdened with work or debt. From the start, the entire student loans system has been grossly unfair on working-class students. Poorer students pay more than the rich, then study less than the rich, and so get worse grades and less out of university than the rich.

It is a clearly flawed and unfair system, and students and working graduates must fight to write off the debt and for free education.

50% increase in total student loan payments for an average graduate after recent changes

10 more years paying off student loan debt for new students

Students can’t afford to go to university

Dean Young, Liverpool Socialist Students

Being a student is meant to be one of the best periods of your life. Sure, there is the stress of whether you can finish your essays in time, but that is supposed to be the side dish to three or more years of growing up, enjoying not having the responsibilities of a full-time job and thus avoiding being eaten up by the exploitative capitalist system.

But in reality, students are seen as commodities by universities desperate for our fees, and with maintenance grants replaced by loans that don’t cover the cost of living. What does this look like for students? It means having to work to survive; over 50% of students now work, unable to fully focus on their studies.

It means having an average debt upon graduating in 2023 of £44,730, if you study in England. I’m a third-year student and would like to do a Masters degree. That’s another £12,000 or more of debt to be paid off separately to my undergraduate loan.

Students hardly ever pay this debt off, with the interest rates at ludicrous levels. Instead we are burdened by a stealth tax, costing graduates thousands upon thousands of pounds across their working lives. Paying off the debt from a Masters degree is an additional 6% of your income above a much lower threshold of £21,000. So if you enjoy education, good luck to your bank account!

When students were paid to go to university

Roger Bannister, Liverpool Socialist party

I was brought up in one of 36 terraced houses in a working-class cul-de-sac in Manchester. In 1970, when I went to Bristol University, I was the first person from there to go to university. My parents were both low paid, at that time my dad was earning around £600 a year, and my mum even less as a part-time typist. To get things into perspective, a newly qualified teacher then would be paid around £940 a year. If things were as they are now, with inadequate maintenance loans and massive tuition fees to pay afterwards, there is no way that I could have gone to university.

But back then, as a result of legislation from the mid-1960s, local authorities were obliged by law to pay all university fees (including student union membership) and pay all but the children of rich parents a maintenance grant. In 1970 the full grant was £340 a year, but it was means-tested according to parental income and certain outgoings. I remember that in my first year my grant was £309, my parents having to make up the difference, which they still struggled to do.

The grant was never lavish, but we could survive within a culture of frugality. Rather than buy a small loaf, two of us would buy a large one, and we would have half each, which worked out cheaper! A couple of weeks’ work on the Christmas post and a summer holiday job in a local brewery made a big difference. During the Easter holiday, when temporary jobs were rare, I used to sign on as unemployed, which students were allowed to do then, and get paid unemployment benefit.

This all meant that life at university was free from worries about money. I did not know any students that worked during term time, so we could concentrate on our studies, buying our textbooks out of our grants, and even managing to have a bit of recreational spending at weekends.

One other difference between then and now was that the National Union of Students (NUS) was more militant. National student strikes were called to defend grants or to push the case to have them increased. I was surprised that when grants were ended, and tuition fees introduced by the New Labour Blair government, there seemed very little action from the NUS. Socialist Party members, as part of the campaign ‘Save Free Education’, pushed for the NUS to act to prevent the fees-based model, expanded upon by Tory-led governments decades later.