Education column: Young people should not have to deal with student debts of £50,000

Many students can find the university experience challenging
Many students can find the university experience challenging

Students in Sheffield schools who are thinking about heading off to university in a few years may be given heart by Theresa May’s announcement of a review of fees and funding.

The situation at the moment is a mess. For our economy to grow and to develop our society, we need people to go to university and embark on professional careers.

And yet the very people we are meant to be encouraging to get those degrees are landed with debts that are often in excess of £50,000.

Speak to students paying £9,000 a year for their studies and you’ll find many are unhappy at the value for money they get for their courses, which can have less than ten contact hours per week.

So, I welcome Theresa May’s acknowledgement that the current system is broken and unsustainable.

There is a real potential here for the Tories to do something positive that can help young people going to university, and encourage those taking A-Levels and GCSEs to further their education in a meaningful way.

The Prime Minister has made a very positive step forward by expressing the opinion that degree courses in this country are not good value for money.

Courses in the UK are more expensive than public degrees in the United States and significantly more than EU countries such as The Netherlands.

Of course, what needs addressing in the UK is the astonishing anomalies between the amounts paid by students in different corners of the nation.

While Sheffield’s students will be expected to pay £9,250 at many universities, their peers from Wales have a cap at £9000. This, of course, is nothing compared to the huge reductions offered in Northern Ireland and the free degree courses everybody in Scotland is entitled to.

The ludicrous result of the current system is the amount of unpaid debt the government have to take the hit on, with this ultimately being funded by taxpayers.

Students repay a percentage of their earnings on completion of the degree, but a lifetime of these instalments will rarely cover the total amount borrowed.

So, if we know it’s not going to be fully repaid, why are we wrongly labelling it as debt and why are we pointlessly charging interest on it?

These are some of the questions that Theresa May’s review will hopefully address.

Dangers lay ahead, though. The government don’t exactly have a great track record of following through on the recommendations of reviews they initially fully believe in.

The review of university fees will take at least a year – that’s too long, for starters – but it’s unclear what action may taken at the end of it – if any.

The Prime Minister was quick to state that tuition fees will not be abolished as a result of the review.

But when you take into account that the total amount of debt is rarely paid, a slight reduction in the amount of fees or the interest rates will not make a great deal of difference to those attending uni.

To make an impact on those graduating, there has to be a reduction in the loan repayments people are making or a raising of the salary threshold that indicates when people start paying and how much they contribute.

This is, of course, at odds with Labour’s position – to abolish tuition fees and allow a free university education for everyone.

The economic burden created by this policy would be huge, but let’s hope the Tories can reverse their well-established reputation as being the education “bad guys” by arriving at a halfway house that reduces the financial impact on individuals wanting to develop a career.

More options need to be open to our young people – including those wanting to enter non-academic vocations – and they should not be setting out on their chosen career saddled with debt.

Our young people have enough on their plates dealing with Brexit Britain and struggles to get on the housing ladder.

They deserve a break.