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Ellen Jones discusses the thorny issue of student debt and the potential impact it may have on limiting student intakes at universities. 

Another year at university looms, and along with the excitement of being back for another year of Lola Lo Tuesdays and Taka Taka midnight feasts, for most of us comes at least another £12,821 of student debt.

For our generation, as students, ‘debt’ has been a somewhat of a trend word. ‘Student debt’ fills pages of broadsheets and tabloids alike: inspiring sensationalist headlines, defining election campaigns, and arousing pity filled winces from our older siblings and parents. Our debt, we’re told, is indeed hefty, but worth it when looking towards graduate schemes which will help us to pay it off. But, with all this persistent – even constant – talk of debt, have we become numbed to the reality of our graduate shortfalls? Has our tens-of-thousands deficit become so normalised that debt has become something we know is a shame, but generally don’t really understand?

A recent analysis published by the Institute of Fiscal Studies revealed that the average student in the UK will leave university with £50,000 of debt, rising to £57,000 for poorer students qualifying for higher loans. This combination of high fees, the replacement of maintenance grants with loans, and escalating interest rates now means that English graduates leave university with the highest student debts in the developed world. Our debt is now above that of students in the USA – famed for its high fees – where average graduate debt is £28,000.

True, the story we’re often sold is that it’s all OK, because so huge is our debt that most of us are unlikely to ever pay it off. But, rather than the government being the victim, losing the money it loans, we might be being lured into a false sense of security. With our debt now totting up 6.1% of interest whilst we’re still at university, a large proportion of those gaining graduate positions will continue to pay off their ever-rising debt, even paying back more than the original loan amount, until debt is wiped after 30 years. For a graduate on a £25,000 salary, annual repayments will total £360. However, even paying the minimum level of interest, a £50,000 debt will have increased by £1,550 within a year of graduation. We appear to be the modern-day victims of the ‘no-win-no-fee’ trap – and the government is the trickster.

So, is it really all worth it? Well for most of us currently at university, you would assume the answer is ‘yes’. Our degrees set us up for a level of success often unattainable without higher education; university acts as an intermediary between childhood and scary ‘real-life’ adulthood. We are both personally and professionally enriched.

Charlie Gearon, third year English and Philosophy student at Bristol agrees that student debt is inevitable, and worth it. ‘I think it’s a worthwhile expenditure. In reality, we never see tuition fees money anyway, and when we do come to pay it off, it will just be an extra bill. Yes, it’s annoying, but it’s just a reality we have to face’.

However, it seems that most undergraduates aren’t fully aware of what exactly their debt is, and how they will pay it off.

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Jane Cowie, third year English student told Epigram, ‘I think that a lot is hidden from students’.‘There’s an expectation for students with certain grades to go to university, and we’re not encouraged to consider the financial burdens beforehand. At the moment, it feels like invisible money, but in reality, it’s not’.

For others, university debt is a key concern, and something which emphasises the larger political issues of the present day. Stefan Rolnick, a recent graduate from the University of Bristol, told Epigram why he thinks the current loan system punishes only the poorest students.

‘The system quite literally charges you for being poor.’

‘Although our system works like a graduate tax, if your parents are rich enough they can pay off your student debt straight away after graduation, meaning it accumulates no more interest. If you go to university from a less advantaged background, your interest is likely to accumulate and you end up paying more. The system quite literally charges you for being poor. This is where our disgust should be aimed.’

Meanwhile, recent headlines have been filled with news of university applications dropping by 8.7% this year. Yet, more students from disadvantaged backgrounds are applying for university places year-on-year. The prospect of such burdensome debt is evidently playing a role in muddying the image of the care-free student life – but not wholly.

Clearly, the student community is divided. Whilst some are aware of the future repayments, and feel their degree certificate and graduate opportunities are worth it, others feel anything but enlightened about what their education is, or will be, costing them. Our role as students, and prospective students, can only be to continue to speak up against further fee and interest rate rises, or we may just be the final generation of multi-ethnic, varied backgrounded university goers.

What do you think about student debt? Let us know: comment, or contact us on Facebook or Twitter.

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