To take out a student loan, you must agree to the terms and conditions, like any financial contract. However, the terms of the student loan state that you must agree to any retrospective changes made to the loan. What other financial obligation, ever, would change after you’ve already taken it out? Tracker mortgages, endowment investments and any volatile fiscal arrangement all operate within the parameters agreed to by both parties, in their success or to their detriment, the contract binds.
Let’s look at the alternatives to taking out a student loan: you could take out a bank loan. These are far more expensive than student loans, with much higher interest rates and you are required to pay them back immediately. You might be sponsored: in the US, where student fees are notably extortionate, many bright pupils are funded by companies who they then go and work for. There are very few programmes like this in the UK run by private companies, although it is possible to get funding through the army or certain branches of the NHS. There are very few of these, and they are only suitable if you are prepared to sign your life away before you know what for. You might have wealthy parents. This option is only for the select few: my daddy-kins certainly does not have a spare £27,000 to pay my tuition up-front, neither does my darling mummy have the dollar to give me all my spendoes whilst I’m here or to pay my accommodation costs. And there is always prison. I am seriously considering committing a crime that will get me 7 years and using that time to live rent-free, capitalising on our prison education system for my MA and PhD. It can’t possibly be worse than some London digs.
It is, for these reasons, not optional for most people to take a student loan if they want to enter higher education. Because of this, it is not optional to agree to the terms and conditions therein. It is not difficult for student debt to reach £50,000 nowadays, and knowing that we won’t have to pay it back until we have the money was the only reason some people (particularly those from less financially well-off backgrounds) accepted this horrendous state and went to university. What other occasion would you not simply let but encourage a young person to live beyond their means, to take on a mantle of debt as they are just entering life?
This is not a party political issue. How is it fair that any government can make a promise, a brutal ‘compromise’ and then go back on their word? Did you think it was excessive, that students were living it up, that the stories of only eating baked beans and dried noodles were cultural capital for gap yah kids? Let me tell you that this generation (like every other) is hardworking, determined and innovative, by and large. We have swallowed internships and ‘work experience’; we have earned and borrowed and some of us have taken from our parents, when they could give; we have agreed to your incredible deal under pressure – do not make it any worse for us by changing our terms.
The changing of the loans is not a student issue. It is a student example. I do not think that the government ought to operate as a private company: the state works for the good of the many, it protects us and we should hold it to different (although NOT lower) standards than the private sector. But this is the same issue as teachers’ and firemen’s pensions. This is the selling off of Royal Mail and the ending of free school meals for infants. This is a problem with the rich, who do not know the security these things give to the common working person.
Imagine not knowing that your pension is secure after having worked twenty-five years expecting it, especially in a role like fireman where your life is on the line daily, you require levels of specific training and fitness unfathomable to the normal person. You are under intense psychological pressure (I have never seen a mutilated dead body, or a desperate mother whose child is in a smashed-up car), and there is a time limit on the job you do. Perhaps some firemen can work past 50, but these brave souls ought to be able to relax into the physical changes of older life without fear that their terms of service are changing. And so firemen are striking for continuity.
Media coverage of strikes is appalling, with Unions like the RMT being painted as villains, dragons who won’t back down and are getting in the way of honest working people. In contrast, I regularly hear friends talking about finishing work at 9pm, not getting lunchbreaks, living below various poverty lines and, crucially, not being members of a Union. Anybody who looked at anything the striking tube workers said would know that it’s not money (not always, although many people ought to practise what they preach) but changes in contract that they were protesting. We would still have child labour, dangerous working environments and incredibly limited suffrage if not for the Unions and the collective power of those who actually do things. Working people.
To my mind, the government is exerting its power over the NUS – a well-functioning, high-profile Union which has a significant amount of members – as an example to us all. Nobody is immune from austerity (except people whose independent wealth happens to cushion them), nobody is immune to changes (except the bankers and journalists who remain unregulated), and they are making unquestionable, entirely legal changes. Students cannot strike, academics were striking just last year, and who has sympathy left to spare for the young?
Fundamentally, we the taxpayer are getting a worse deal if we let this happen. We the ordinary workers, we the working and middle-classes (for these changes affect everyone from dustmen to doctors) who keep the country running. We whose purchases are allegedly the lodestone of the whole economic system, whether they are taxed or helping growth of small companies or bringing big business to the UK. We who the welfare state is protecting – we are at risk of our basic right to get what we have agreed with the government (because what is a contract if not an agreement?) removed. MPs have forgotten their place – the reason they are waged is so that any man, regardless of his standing, may enter the House. The reason their wage is so high is to keep them above corruption. But they have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is like to be young or vulnerable.
In the aftermath of everything we’ve been through and have yet to go through, let me ask on behalf of the younger generation who stand in solidarity with workers everywhere – how are we supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when we’ve had our shoelaces taken away so that we don’t hang ourselves?