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Is University Still Worth It?

I Wouldn't Be Writing This If the University Grants System Never Existed

By cutting university grants, the Tories have condemned an entire class of people to stay in their lane for generations.

by Joel Golby
01 August 2016, 11:12am

(Photo via Oscar Webb)

If you take what's written in the VICE comments section as a given – and may the good lord have mercy on your forsaken soul when he condemns you down to hell for such a thing; I mean, hoo boy; I mean, they are going to have to invent an eighth and ninth circle of that thing for you to go and live in for that one – you will of course know that I am a middle-class Tory boy whose daddy got him a job in the media after I took seven consecutive gap years "finding myself" in Asia. Mate: can you imagine how unbearable I would be if I had a rich dad and an inherent, baked-in sense of entitlement? My god. I'd own all you fuckers. I'd own your houses. I would go to so many rowing club ten-year reunion parties. Fucking hell. My coke problem would just be insane.

Sadly, it's not as interesting as all that: first ten years of my life were spent with both my parents on benefits, then my mum got a job in the big Royal Mail office in town and we went from a family entirely dependent on benefits to a family half-dependent on benefits. It never really got better than that; when my parents split up, dad went to live in a council flat and it was just me, my mum and her meagre salary. When it came to university time, she filled out the grant application forms without blinking: "Loan, grant, loan, grant, and you're going to be eating a lot of plain pasta for the next three years." Those were my instructions. "What's a grant?" I remember asking, because I was a fucking idiot. "It's free money," she said. "It's the only way you're going to university." Okay.

This isn't about me, though, because I went to university, I got my 2:1, I have my debt and I am above the earning threshold to be deemed enough that I can start paying it back. This is about the thousands of lower-income and straight up poor kids who wanted to go to university and just had those dreams extinguished. Those thousands of smart, ambitious voices that just, in one fell swoop, got sounded out. Today is the Death Star of higher education. A planet we will never know the shape of just got exploded.

As of today, student grants no longer exist. They are instead going to be replaced by loans. This was announced in the 2015 July budget, but nothing seems so real as when it's actually happening, as we just found out with Brexit. "Under changes that came into effect on Monday, grants for students from low-income homes are replaced by loans," the BBC reports. "Previously, students from families with annual incomes of £25,000 or less received a full grant of £3,387 a year."

How is this bad? Well, without that £10,000 or so of money, I absolutely could not have gone to university: my fees were paid by student loans (and my fees were the £3,000-a-year fees, not these sickening £9,000-a-year ones you have these days, which, for about six hours a week of disinterested lecturing from MA second year students, i.e. more or less what I got for the duration of my degree, is an absolute fucking pisstake) and my rent, food, the money I literally lived on, that was all paid by grants and the overdraft I am still living in now. That's it. I remember when I moved into halls and my mum did me a big Morrison's shop to get me started (lots of mum-approved foods: oats, rice, apples), and her friend Barb gave me £20 to keep me ticking over until my loan came in. And that was it. I was on my own. £20 in an envelope, three Golden Delicious and a load of LEA paperwork. Enjoy the next three years. Don't fuck it up.

I wasn't the first in my family to go to university – my dad went, and my overachieving sister before me, and my cousin had found his purpose as a mature student and retrained entirely, changing from "weird punk" to "weird punk with a biology degree and a wife and kid" seemingly overnight – but even if I had been, university always seemed like such a natural, assumed progression: first week of sixth form was essentially spent marvelling at the fact we didn't have to wear school uniform any more while being bombarded with the UCAS application process. The only reason people took on hobbies and interests was to make them a more rounded person to appeal to the various universities they were courting. When you're 17, the only reason to be better – to be anyone, to do anything other than get stoned behind the tennis court, back where the dinner ladies can't see the smoke clouds – the only reason for any of that is the vague promise of the future, of university; that final step in the progression of You.

There are, as we are told often these days, a number of alternatives to university: apprenticeship schemes, traineeships, straight up just getting into an industry at the bottom rung and working your way up. If they are for you, great: I have friends who dropped out of sixth form and are beating me in terms of money earned and general having-their-shit-together-ness. But 18-year-old Joel Golby was a shit show of a human who just about knew he was good at writing. I needed to go to university to learn how to be a person: to fend for myself, meet a new and diverse set of people, learn to critically engage my brain, lose weight, spend all-nighters in the library, love football again, learn to drink, socialise, bone. Consider this: I was, by all metrics, a smart kid, but I did not know the difference between a noun and a verb properly before second year. Kids mature at different rates, and I was clearly lagging behind. I needed the in-at-the-deep-end three years of university to become who I am today. I would literally be a different human being without university. A poorer, dumber, still-in-my-hometown1 human being. Without university, the amount of spare time I would spend on 4chan is incalculable. Ten years of that and I would be into such, such, such weird anime porn. University, for me, was some proper butterfly effect shit.

When announcing the budget change last year, George Osborne – a man with a face I would never tire of punching; I could punch that cunt's face until my arms were nubs; I would punch my arms down to the shoulders, his face would just be a pink spread of gristle and mist and I would still be punching; I would be grinding my sockets down to something smooth and soft; scientists would have to develop special robot arms like those ones they test sofas with at IKEA just to mount on to me so I could keep punching him – George Osborne said that there was "basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them", and honestly, hyperbole aside, reading that quote back makes me feel more than a little sick. Point fucking one: a university degree is no longer any promise of a higher earning potential (you basically emerge, fresh-faced and full of hope for the challenges of a life ahead of you, only for supposed entry-level jobs to somehow expect a year of working experience already, and you are asked to do a thousand internships before someone deems you worthy enough to pay). Point two: as announced today, any potential increase in earning potential is eclipsed by the fact that student debt wipes out any pay premiums, i.e. the cost of the smarts in your head that supposedly make you more valuable eclipse the actual value of the smarts in your head near-perfectly. Point three: as the IF further reported today, the £400,000 figure that has long been cited as the average overall lifetime earnings of a university graduate was formulated in 2002, which may as well have been a thousand million years ago, and now that figure is closer to £100,000, which over the course of a lifetime may as well be nothing. And fourthly: fuck the taxpayer. Why are we so precious about people who are loudly proud about the fact they pay taxes? Every fucker pays taxes: it's taken from your pay before it even gets to you. And the only reason I am able to pay as much tax as I pay now is because I earn more because I went to university. Fucking come on.

(A quick sidebar: student loans debt is often sold as "good debt"; that you only repay it once you earn above a certain threshold; it's such a low interest rate; Don't Worry About It, Kid, Go Out There, Have Fun. To kids who have never seen £9,000 in their life, three years' worth of that is daunting enough to make you second-guess whether you should even to go university in the first place. ["Are you smart? Are you twenty-seven thousand pounds worth of smart? Really?"] Add on some grants' worth of money to the mix and you're looking at a near lifetime of debt. A lifetime. To go and eat Pot Noodles and talk to kids called Rory about books you have actually read and they haven't. For three years fucking about in Exeter when your family needs money, needs income, when you could just get a job and help them, use your smarts and be smart. There's no good debt in that situation.)

Why, then, given the above, should anyone ever go to university? It's becoming an ever more difficult question. Essentially, the way it's going: no, nobody should go to university, ever, really. But fundamentally: everyone should have the chance to choose whether they get to go or not. Time travel Yung Joel to the year 2k16, and all I can see is me and my mum, her sat and me stood by the computer, running the numbers and her just shaking her head. If I was 18 this year, I absolutely would not have been able to take the opportunity that changed and forged me as a human, and that truth absolutely takes the wind out of me. How many smart, ambitious kids who happen to have poor parents just had their legs cut off today? How many people just had that choice – not the opportunity, but the choice as to whether they could take it – stolen from them? How will that affect this country in ten years' time, 20 years' time? This is the Toriest thing that has happened in living memory. They have condemned an entire class of people to stay in their lane for generations.

I don't want universities to be full of braying rich kids who can somehow wear seven or eight polo shirts at once spending three years playing rugger and fucking pigs' heads before they get a job their brother arranged for them in the City. I want those posh cunts to have to confront us. I want poor kids to go and stare them in the white of their eyes and say, "I am smarter than you. I am better than you." I want the kids who never thought they could afford success to fucking triumph. I want them to be their bosses, I want them to crush the rich, I want them to fire them from their jobs and send them back to their daddy's country pile with their tails between their legs. We shouldn't need the heat of our anger at the system to be the only motivation to succeed. We should be allowed the opportunity to get on and be better regardless.

University doesn't make you a better person, or a smarter person. It does change the odds in your favour. It gives you an extra couple of rolls of the dice when you think you are crapped out. It lets you meet people who can pull you up. It gives you two little letters by the end of your name that you can wear like a shield. No matter how they fuck with you, you've got that in you. When I graduated, I went back to my hometown, and everything seemed smaller, narrower. For a summer I worked in the same gigantic Royal Mail office my mum worked in. And that's where I'd still be, if I'd never been given the agitation to get out. I know exactly what view I'd see when I looked out of the window – where I'd sit, because I already sat there, I already did it. I had a temp job that was looking to go perm, and where would I have got from there? I had a little tin of Coffee Mate I kept in my desk drawer because we weren't allowed actual milk. I was on the fast lane to becoming an office drone. I had patter with the old guy who sat behind me at my cubicle. I had a tie and three shirts on rotation. I took my lunch at the exact same time every day and went and ate my sandwich in a high park and I looked down upon a town I hated and an office I hated. If that's what you want, great, but I didn't, and a university education gave me the opportunity to bust out of that. I am in the absurd position now where I can say, with my sort-of-small overdraft and my ~£12k of remaining debt and my university degree, that I am lucky to have that. An entire generation – maybe two, maybe three – of smart, forward-thinking kids just got that chance taken away from them. That's a crime. Absolutely fuck this awful country.

@joelgolby


1. Obvious caveat: there's nothing wrong with staying in your hometown, but my hometown is ranked pretty badly in terms of "total deprivation", i.e. employment, income and life expectancy metrics are all pretty low, and I'm not saying "London is great, it is the be all and the end of all," but also I don't want to maybe work in a big anodyne office – if I can get the job there, that is – and die on the dot at 60, no shade

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