UK’s extortionate tuition fees in focus as largest single student debt is £189,700

Britain's student debt revolt gains pace once more, with the announcement that the largest debt amassed by a student in England is almost £190,000.

Tuition fee hikes are taking their toll on students

This eye-watering sum was published in response to a Freedom of Information request made to the Student Loan Company.

The figure was published on the social news aggregation site, Reddit. The post generated an outpour of anger, with students and graduates sharing their own pitiful student loan stories.

As one graduate Reddit user wrote: “My loan of £49,510 has increased to £60,081 in three years since I graduated. And last month I paid £70. Basically, works out like taxing me at 25% as opposed to 20%. Currently on track to have £152,000 of student loan debt by 2050.”

An ‘exceptional case’

Responding to the FOI request, the Student Loan Company (SLC) said the £189,700 figure was an “exceptional case” and was possibly accrued over several loans for different courses. The organisation, which provides loans and grants to approximately two million new and returning students in colleges and universities across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales annually, argues that the individual may have undertaken postgraduate study or dropped out of a number of courses.

Such scenario has not however been confirmed and remains purely speculative.

What is more concrete is the escalating debt burden people carry with them after graduating.

Tuition fees tripped in 2010

In 2010, tuition fees were tripled, when the government decided to transfer the cost of courses from the state to students. The policy change saw fees rise to £6,000, with an upper tier of £9,000 if universities promised access for lower-income students.

The purpose of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s bill to enable universities to triple the cap of tuition fees to £9,000, was attributed to being a means of compensating for an 80% cut in the teaching budget at a time when Britain was planning austerity measures to try and claw back some coffers and aid recovery from the banking crisis of 2008.

Despite weeks of student protests that saw university buildings and Lib Dem MPs’ offices occupied, the proposals were passed.

A ‘tragedy for a whole generation of young people’

The then Universities Minister David Willetts described the reform as “progressive.” The measure was condemned by Labour, with MP Gareth Thomas describing the fee hike as a “tragedy for a whole generation of young people.”  

In 2015, the fate to graduates’ finances nosedived further when the government changed the terms of student loans. The Cameron administration backtracked on promises that the minimum threshold at which graduates were asked to start repaying debt would be linked to average earnings in Britain. Subsequently, low-to-mid earners may not have to start repaying the debt and if they did it would be very low amounts. Conservative ministers promised the threshold would be “increased periodically to reflect earnings.”

The government backpedalled on the pledge by abolishing the raising of the threshold each year so it was in-line with average earnings, to freezing the threshold at £21,000 for the next five years.

This meant that debt repayments would begin much earlier than previously expected, and the amount borrowers have to pay back in each instalment would be more than expected.

Consecutive hikes

In 2016, the government announced plans to increase tuition fees from £9,000 to £9,250.

Following two decades of consecutive hikes and policy amendments that put the financial burden of going to university on the student, graduates are feeling the pinch both financially and emotionally.

A report issued by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that those who graduated in 2020 took out an average loan of $45,000. The report notes how graduates feel their debt is “draining, weighing them down, on their shoulders” and causing them “anxiety, pressure, worry and dread”.

Claire Callender, professor of higher education at UCL and one of the report’s authors, questioned the benefits the tuition fee hike brings to the Treasury and the welfare of graduates.

“Why burden students psychologically and materially with enormous debts when most will never fully repay them? And is the student loan system and the income it generates for the Treasury really worth the potential long-term consequences for graduates’ welfare, life choices and opportunities – affecting the lives of generations to come,” Callender asked.

Government should ‘write-off all student debt

Talking to LFF, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS VP for Higher Education, said the government should abolish tuition fees and write-off all student debt.

“We’re in the middle of student debt crisis. Issues related to debt and financial insecurity have worsened since the onset of Covid-19, and NUS research has identified that more than two in three (70%) students are concerned about their ability to manage financially. Rather than tinkering with our broken system, the government should listen to the student movement, abolish tuition fees and write-off all student debt. Only then will we be able to imagine a post-market system where knowledge isn’t commodified, but rather valued as a public good,” said Gyebi-Ababio.

UK has highest tuition fees in Europe

Compared to international tuition fees, the cost of university is higher in the UK, while England has the most expensive fees in Europe.  Many European countries don’t charge fees or have low fees in place. In 2015, Germany scrapped its tuition fees, something which abetted the growing frustration to Britain’s burgeoning tuition fee revolution.

Revolt surrounding the UK’s eye-watering tuition fees has been brought to the limelight once more in the wake of the recent Freedom of Information request.

As one Reddit user said in response to the £189,700 student debt.

“When I finish my degree I’ll be at £90,000. Yikes.

“Best not to think about.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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