On Tuition Fee Mistakes and #OpenBook, @mariellaf1, @BBCRadio4 @MartinSLewis #OpenMindaySpecial

A message I wanted to submit to Radio 4’s Open Book programme but was unable to do so due to the limits of the contact form.

Dear Mariella and Open Book,

I admire you very much and enjoy your podcast immensely. But I nearly chewed through my steering wheel this morning in frustration as Ben Masters and Prof John Bowen aired  ridiculously uninformed comments on the impact of tuition fees on modern students.

To suggest a sort of Brideshead reimagined, where a “two-tier” system exists not only between the privileged ‘finishing-school’ students of monied families and earnestly grateful young people from underprivileged households, but also between universities themselves (without clarifying what exactly this might implicate or mean) points to a void of understanding of the lives of students today and the HE system itself. This is a surprise to hear from two writers with such a strong connection to student life.

But to allow the misjudged, if popular, assertion that tuition fees means fewer students from low-income families will be able to finance their studies to stand unchallenged by the facts is irresponsible. Mariella, I would have anticipated you at least to question this unformed, knee-jerk opinion with your trademark spearing intellect.

In actual fact, by comparison to my own entry into HE, it is now far more immediately affordable for anyone to go to University than it was a decade ago when £3,000 worth of fees was payable up front.

And as the tireless Martin Lewis will explain to you, in careful and slow detail if required, even a drop to fees of £6k would benefit only those who leave uni into a job with a starting salary of £30k+. I can tell you categorically that this is hardly a broad swathe of graduates.

The moral panic that has gripped discussions about tuition fees wilfully ignores the reality: At a salary of £21k a graduate pays back less a month than an iPhone contract; Mortgage brokers and credit agencies have stated that student ‘debt’ will not affect calculations; The entire debt will be written off completely after 30 years regardless of payments.

I only wish I had gone to university 10 years later and ‘suffered’ the new fees. I entered in 2000. At the moment I pay back over £120 a month to my student loan. I began paying it back when I earned over £15k a year. This was more than two years after I had graduated (having been a journalist) which meant that I am only now, after working full-time for 8 years, beginning to see the total drop noticeably beyond the £9k I left with in 2003. And this does not even touch the £3k a year in fees which was paid by my parents.

Under the new system I’d pay £80 a month (£40 can be very useful). This would see the interest drive the total higher and higher but at this point in my career I would be just as close (if not closer) to being free of the debt as 2012 loans will be written off 30 years after graduation whereas my actual loan will exist until I every penny is paid. Or I die.

I would go so far as to suggest that in the last 10 years, perhaps almost 15 years, there has been no better time for a student of the arts or humanities to go to university. Careers in the arts and humanities traditionally not only start below 21k but often will rarely step significantly over this line, making the lifetime repayment a fair fee for a higher education.

I am fortunate in earning far more than I ever dreamed was possible, given my English degree and my distaste for management or upper office roles, but my ambitions to become a full-time writer do not combine as well with the 2000 fees as they would do with the 2012 fee. I have to face the fact that I may never pay off my debt.

The obfuscation around this issue makes me furious. Especially so when a highly respected and intellectual arts and humanities service such as Open Book gives credence to such idiotic, ill-considered conclusions that do nothing but pile higher the blind fear and confusion which feeds newspapers and commenters with low ambitions.

The question of whether increased fees would impact on campus novels was cack-handled in similar fashion by the two guests. The lives and loves of a generation of students who might carry alarming and undeniable debt but who are also empowered by the ownership of their education (not gifted it as I was by my parents) and the prospect of the future emotional and financial payback of making good on both that ownership and the debt owed, promise truly gripping and moving pieces of work.

Work that a 2015 graduate, with no repayments to make until they had reached 21k (a mark of fair success and comfort by any measure) and who had paid less upfront than myself to enter university, would be perfectly well positioned to create.

If I weren’t already deep in another project I would write it myself. Perhaps, in a few years, I will. At which point I look forward to the privilege of being invited to talk with you on Open Book, Mariella, about how the unreconstructed opinions of two men inspired me to write this message and begin the entire process.

Thank you for your time,

Ben Catley-Richardson

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About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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