Education: Higher education should be free but for now don’t think of it as debt

Sheffield High School for Girls A-level results 2017.
Sheffield High School for Girls A-level results 2017.

Sixth Form staff across Sheffield schools did a tremendous job last week securing university places for those students wanting to tackle a degree after getting their A Level results.

In some schools, dozens of the Y13 students who picked up their grades on the day had to have help finding their university course. Their tutors – experts at handling the ‘clearing’ system that allocates uni places on results day – were in early and stayed until the job was done.

According to the university admissions service, UCAS, the number of students across the country gaining access to their new course through clearing on results day was the highest in five years.

Over 11,000 young people needed help on the day. Sadly, every single one of them now has the spectre of student debt hanging over them.

It’s a very strange system that rewards hard work and success with a debt stacking up to tens of thousands of pounds.

The teenagers we saw in pictures last week, all smiles and celebrations, might now have had a reflective moment or two as they realise the huge figures involved in attending university.

It’s very possible that their debt in just three years’ time will top £50,000. As well as teachers handing them their results last Thursday, our society has also handed them a massive financial burden.

Education should be free to all. The students starting their courses should not have to worry about repaying their university fees.

Arguments made by our politicians that these young people should contribute their fair share are hypocritical in the extreme. The men and women making the decisions to impose and increase these fees and debts are the same ones who had their university fees paid for them – and in many cases got a government-funding grant for attending as well.

The idea that the fees should only be paid by those who attend university and not by the population who never went to university is also short-sighted.

The professionals who attend university advance our society. We are all indebted to them.

As well as helping us in many different ways, higher education also creates a more tolerant, forward-thinking society. The suggestion that all taxpayers shouldn’t contribute towards that is a nonsense.

Some political parties have come round to the argument that tuition fees should be scrapped.

We weren’t that far away from having the policy reversed at the last general election, so it may be that the days are numbered for tuition fees.

But while Sheffield’s 18-year-olds are heading off to uni and shouldering a eye-watering fees, I have this advice for them: do not look at it as a debt.

The process of paying for tuition fees and taking on student loans while you are at university has been so badly miscommunicated by successive governments that it is still completely misunderstood by many teenagers and their parents.

The word “debt” is a completely inappropriate one; you are very unlikely to pay off all you ‘borrow.’

Instead, you need to look upon the system as one where you are given money and then you make a contribution to the government when you have a decent job.

The amount you pay each month will depend upon the salary you earn and have nothing to do with the amount you owe.

Payment consists of 10 per cent of everything you earn above £21,000. If you earn £21,000, you pay nothing.

It is important to look at it this way, because it may reduce the amount of stress that students experience when they are at university, spending the money they have been loaned.

The government would do young people a massive favour if it stopped referring to it as a debt, stopped sending statements out with huge numbers on and adopted this method of paying a contribution of earnings.

Or better still, let students go to university without any financial restraints.