Students are dashing from A-levels into debt, fuelled by a fear of poverty
Teenagers getting their results this week have little choice but to scramble for a university place and face the huge debt now involved
In a couple of days’ time about half a million young people will find out their A-level results. Soon we will no doubt learn whether a fraction more, or less, gained A*s compared with last year and in which subjects. But this year is different. A much higher proportion of youngsters will win a university place than ever before. And the message from ministers will be: everyone who strives is a winner in Cameron’s Britain. That message is a lie.
Universities will accept more students this year because the government has scrapped the old financial rules, which capped the number of places in each university. Now institutions can take any number. At the same time, the government’s benefit changes have made it harder for anyone aged under 25 to find a good job and be able to afford to house themselves. Those who don’t go to university usually have to take whatever precarious low-paid work is on offer near their home.
In a more decent country, young people would be able to vote with their feet against the debt imposed by £9,000 tuition fees. They would have other options. But in the UK today, rejecting the offer of a university place means a greatly increased risk of living in poverty.
The chancellor, George Osborne, rounded off his budget speech of July 2015 thus: “It was the Conservatives who first protected working people in the mills; it was the Conservatives who took a great step towards state education … So, of course, it is now the Conservatives who are transforming welfare and introducing a national living wage. This is the party for the working people of Britain.”
It was, of course, the Conservatives who mostly looked after the mill owners’ interests and who still seek to make it harder for ill-treated workers to strike. They have reduced the amount of money spent per child in state education, especially in sixth forms and further education colleges.
It was also the Conservatives who in the July budget took away what remained of grants for poorer students, converting them to loans. And it is the Conservatives and their friends who have most to gain from all the interest that students will have to pay on their loans. The chancellor’s friends are the lenders who buy government bonds and who will buy up large tranches of student debt. The Conservatives have created a sellers’ market for our children’s debt. The long-term plan is not to keep the debt on the government’s books. And that plan requires demand for university places to appear to soar.