Student debt and COVID-19

Higher education in the UK today remains rather precariously on debt and loans. Student debt has become a key feature of the commodification of student lives as universities move towards more private-sector-led business models. This looming indebtedness not only paints a picture of the harsh realities of obtaining a degree, it also often comes with a lack of clarity and financial jargon that complicates what should be a clear reality.

“For around a quarter of a century, we’ve educated our youth into debt when they go to university, but never about debt”. Here, Martin Lewis conveys why student finance is such a complex issue. University students are often placed under a mass of debt in order to obtain a degree, without enough information as to what this debt entails. Political rhetoric surrounding student indebtedness often creates misunderstanding rather than effectively educating students on the financial commitment they are making.

Young students are seemingly shouldering the burden for doing what they have been told is the key to a more prosperous life

The House of Commons carried out a report in 2020 revealing that only 25% of current undergraduates are expected to repay their loans in full. The government on average lends £17 billion to students each year, yet in the future can only expect one quarter of this to be returned. This economic situation, coupled with vast annual student indebtedness, creates a complicated reality of what it takes to finance a university education in the UK.

Whilst government studies show that the majority of graduates will not repay their loans, graduates are still financially and psychologically plunged into a mass of debt that is supposedly meant to represent an ‘educational investment’. It is no secret that the graduate job market is highly over saturated and rife with competition, meaning that even sourcing an income upon graduating is challenging, let alone earning above the threshold to repay tuition and maintenance loans. Young students are seemingly shouldering the burden for doing what they have been told is the key to a more prosperous life. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally challenged how we view the financial burden placed on students to attend university. In the wake of a global health crisis, students have been expected to pursue their academic studies whilst receiving their education totally online. This not only has had huge mentally isolating implications on students, it has also brought into question where their tuition fees are being targeted and why calls for fee reductions have been ardently dismissed. It is also important to recognise the severity of this issue for international students who are paying yearly tuition fees in excess of £19,000 and accommodation costs for an education in a country they cannot travel to.

Greater methods need to be put in place to prioritise clarity in financial education over political rhetoric

University students were paid brief attention to in this week’s COVID-19 government briefing, with Boris Johnson praising students for their “sacrifice” in staying home and carrying out their degrees online. Whilst recognition for student’s situations is well-needed, the briefing did not go far enough to detail financial support for students who have been placed in uncertain circumstances at such short notice. 

Student loans are a complex issue and one that must be taken seriously in light of both the economic and mental implications of debt. It is important to be aware that the student loans system in the UK exists so that no student is wrongly put off attending university under the guise that they can’t afford it. However, greater methods need to be put in place to prioritise clarity in financial education over political rhetoric. The COVID-19 pandemic has placed students under unprecedented mental and financial stress and it is key that their concerns are acknowledged and seriously addressed.

By Lydia Stroud

Image: by Alan Light via Flickr

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