Being working class at university

The latest budget cuts eradicated maintenance grants for all students, which, combined with astronomical tuition fees makes it an even more daunting task for working class people to embark on a university degree.

I graduated from the University of Sheffield with a degree in English Literature in 2013, and again from the University of Sussex this year with an MA in Gender Studies. I’m due to begin my PhD at the University of Sheffield next month so I’m more than a little familiar with the financial issues that take over what should be about further education.

Having a maintenance grant available to me as well as a £3000 a year tuition fee meant going to university seemed slightly too expensive for what I imagined I was getting, but not completely unreasonable. On the other side of a couple of degrees and massive student loans, on balance, I value my education deeply, particularly for teaching me critical thinking skills and introducing me to concepts I wouldn’t have come across anywhere else. But was it necessary to pay so much money for it? Not really, especially given the costs of books for an English Lit student, down-south rent prices and occasionally dodgy teaching at Sussex.

The value of a degree

Working out the ‘value’ of a degree is difficult business in abstract terms, but when it comes to financial terms it’s just as confusing. The way I think of the value of both my degrees depends less on the facilities available at the universities or the strength of the education on offer, and more on my personal finances and those of my family. The availability of tuition fee loans, maintenance loans and maintenance grants combined meant university was an option. Without maintenance grants and a higher tuition fee? I’m not so sure I would have been able to go.

The higher the stakes financially, the more competitive university places are and the more students will expect a higher class education, and rightly so. What is the value of that education when you have to get a job to make rent and have luxuries like eating food and affording course textbooks? I had a job for three months of my Masters degree whilst I wrote my thesis, and they were easily the hardest three months of my life. I was either asleep, writing, or working and by the time I finished with the thesis I was in a swirl of depression and anxiety, constantly near tears because it was far too much pressure. What is the value of a degree when worries about your finance, a lack of time to complete university work and looming job prospects are fucking up your mental health? It seems difficult to be in that position and value education for educations’ sake.

Being poor and healthy

That is the problem with cutting maintenance grants. It abandons students trying to better themselves and it particularly abandons black and minority ethnic students who are statistically more likely to come from backgrounds with financial hardship. A lack of working class students and a lack of working class people of colour restricts the pool of people entering academia for themselves, perpetuating academics flourishing as a class of rich white people. That’s probably no big deal though, it’s not like they influence policy decisions and pour into a pool of social and political critical thought…

Being working class also means relying on families who are already stretched thin with finances. My parents have five children, including me, and I was the first to go to university. By the time I decided I wanted to do a Masters I had to save up my tuition fee from an academic bursary I achieved at undergraduate level, borrow from my parents savings, my parents friends, the rest of my family and get a job at a call centre to cobble together rent and food money. Even then, I’m incredibly lucky to have friends and family who were able to help support me over the year but I could not have taken any more time of lurching from month to month worrying about rent, bills and food.

There is a massive psychological toll of guilt when it comes to money worries. The anxiety of living with the pressure of not being able to support yourself without help, of immediately finding the next thing that you need to be doing to earn money, of whether you chose a ‘bankable’ degree subject is overwhelming.

Maintenance grants and loans at least enabled people who wanted to study to commit to something that feasibly handled money issues. The student debt I’ve amassed is somewhere in the region of £20,000 to £25,000 and if I wasn’t able to get PhD funding there is no way in hell I would have gone near that particular career path, simply because I wouldn’t have been able to. The reason I’m so vague about the amount of debt I have is because it is too astronomical to even feel real. Student Finance do step their efficiency up when it comes to trying to get their money back so I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. I imagine this is the case for many students where. yes, our best option was crippling debt and that’s not even an option anymore.

If this government isn’t willing to subsidize the education of students (the cost of which was raised by…oop, by the government!), then it had better, at the very least, invest in mental health services.

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