Has university got more stressful?

Is it possible that university has got more stressful since our parents’ generation? Out of the numerous pressures students face today, perhaps the two most significant are those of tuition fees and the shrinking job market; with the removal of the tuition fee cap it is possible to end up with tuition debts of up to £36,000, and with an ever-increasing number of graduates comes a marked decrease in available graduate jobs. Judging by the sample I questioned, it doesn’t seem that our parents’ generation of graduates – many of them graduating in the 80s – had nearly as much trouble with these issues, so we certainly seem to face more pressure from that angle. However, it must also be considered that directly comparing our own uni experiences with that of our parents is difficult. Having spoken to several adults who graduated in the early 80s, the impression I’ve gleaned is that our expectations and priorities are much higher than that of their generation, and we have significantly higher disposable income. This puts a very different spin on university as we know it compared to university as they knew it.

In October 2010 the Browne Review proposed to remove the £3,290 cap on university tuition fees, sparking national protest and debate, but to no avail; since 2012, universities have been able to charge students up to £9000 a year for their tuition. The good news is that anyone is eligible for a tuition loan, so for many students it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind for these fees. The bad news is that this means a debt as high as £36,000 for tuition alone hangs over students’ heads as soon as they graduate. Of course this doesn’t have to be paid off straight away, and in fact the standard repayment scheme is generally conceived to be very low; until your annual salary is £17,500 you’re not obliged to pay anything at all, and even if your monthly income is £2,250 the monthly repayment is still less than £100. Additionally, any outstanding balance will usually be written off after 25 years – apart from in Scotland, sadly, where it is 35.

Whether tuition loans are a serious pressure point or not upon graduation is a matter of opinion. Since the £9000 cap was only introduced in 2012, it is only now that students are emerging with that kind of debt, and it will take a few years before we will be able to accurately assess how it affects the lives of graduates. For now, we can only speculate. Most graduates are unlikely to pay back the entirety of their student loan, meaning that in some sense we do, like our parents, get at least some of our university education free. On the other hand, the idea of automatically having thousands of pounds of debt is for many students very disheartening.

The tuition fees could, however, be an incentive for students to take university seriously. One of the 80s graduates I spoke to said that they felt some students in their generation took university education for granted because they didn’t have to pay for it. In comparison, they felt that charging tuition fees changes the relationship students today have with university, causing an underlying anxiety to get the most they possibly can out of it. Theoretically, lecturers are then under more pressure to have a higher quality of practice, and universities are pushed to offer their full potential in facilities and resources.

However, after university, the job market can be a dismal prospect for current graduates. Out of all the 80s graduates I spoke to, not one of them had an issue with finding a decent graduate job after university, but all of them agreed that in that respect they were concerned for our generation. A graduate recruitment website in 2014 ran a survey revealing that nearly 40% of graduates were still looking for work after graduation, almost a quarter were still unemployed after a year, and almost half of all graduates participating wished they had ‘steered clear’ of academic courses and opted for something more vocational instead. Additionally, even among graduates who were employed, almost half had jobs that didn’t require a degree. In contrast to this, all of the 80s graduates I questioned confirmed that they basically walked straight into a graduate level entry job after uni.

One of these 80s graduates suggested that one of the key factors of both the struggle for graduate jobs and the rise in tuition fees is that the number of graduates has increased dramatically, with almost 500,000 students beginning full-time undergraduate courses in 2013. Wider course options and university expansion means that there could simply be too much supply and not enough demand. Logically, as the number of graduates increases, so does the amount of money needed to fund universities, and the number of potential graduate jobs shrinks. Perhaps the solution is a reassessment of what we really want to get out of university, and an increased emphasis both on more vocational degrees and non-university options for school leavers.

It seems that, as a general rule, our generation of students unconsciously expect a much higher standard of living than our parents did at uni, from the food we eat to the clothes we buy and the flats we live in. As a result, students have generated big business, with student deals created for everything from air travel to accommodation to food. Government grants and bursaries mean that students often end up with more disposable income than their parents ever did at uni, or even do now. Out of the 80s graduates I’ve spoken to, most agree that anything extra they purchased – an umbrella, a denim jacket – was ‘a big deal’, a planned purchase rather than an impulse buy. For our parents, having little money didn’t seem to be an issue – ‘we lived on what we had’ – but for us, the hefty expectations we have of a certain lifestyle means that our university experience is undoubtedly very different from that of our parents.

For our parents’ generation, it seems that university did yield considerably less pressure. There were much fewer other graduates to contend with, which may be the reason why two of the biggest obstacles current graduates face – tuition fees and the ailing job market – were almost non-existent. Lower levels of income and quality of lifestyle don’t appear to have been an issue, least of all applying any extra pressure, and in fact all of the 80s graduates I spoke to were almost disparaging about the amount of ready cash students today have in comparison. It is a common trend to look back at previous years with nostalgia, but judging by the reactions and attitudes of those who graduated from university in the early 80s, their university experience perhaps really was a simpler time.

Image: University of Haifa Younes & Soraya Nazarian Library

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The Student Newspaper 2016