Money Matters: A Conversation About Higher Education Funding
I’m afraid this post is going to be a little more serious than some of my past blogs, but I feel strongly that it’s an issue that needs to be talked about out in the open. My views are my own and are not aimed at my former university or funding bodies, but more at the educational system itself.
Money matters, it’s the fact of life, especially in higher education. Having four years of higher education (partly) funded by government loans places me in a position of privilege, a fact of which I am well aware, but now that money has run out, and I’m left in the dust. I realise that an MA or MSc is well beyond the reach of many, as the government loan won’t cover all of your living costs if you choose to pursue your degree away from home, but the loan offered for PhD study is even more of a drop in the ocean of what students need in order to survive.
Here’s my take on it:
My dreams of PhD study lie in tatters, unless I can gain (extremely limited) funding from government funded consortiums, and with apparently double the number of applicants applying this year, my chances of success are slim. The humanities are notoriously underfunded, as universities would rather put money into the STEM subjects. I am eligible for no hardship grants or academic ability studentships from my former university, so I must find alternative funding. I have been a good student, volunteered, worked, and championed my university on the national stage, but I have received no funding in return. I would love nothing more than to dedicate another three to four years of my life to work on the Cabinet Papers, to distribute my findings into mainstream education and give back to widening participation programmes, but instead I am shut out, because I can’t pay up.
I am gutted to think about aspiring students which have been ‘lost’ from the academic world due to their funding status, especially working class, BAME and minority students who would have thrived in the rigorous environment and would have contributed to scholarship in a significant way. As a white student I recognise that the funding I have used from our government is significantly more than students in other countries, and that my path to university was relatively straightforward, but that does not mean I am not free to criticise the system of funding in regards to the humanities.
To break it down, tuition fees are around £4,500 a year for three years, rising with inflation. An optimistic figure is then a £13,500 contribution a student will have to make, and that’s a best-case scenario of completing study within three years. That doesn’t take into account the costs of travelling to archives, study trips abroad, hotel expenses, technology expenses and clothing needed for events and interviews. Those are costs associated with study, and by no means consider the amount needed to pay rent, bills, insurance, food and lifestyle costs. Taking out a postgraduate loan of £26,000 (ish) to last me three years would simply not cover the essentials. After paying tuition fees I’d be left with around £10,000 to last me three years minimum, it’s ridiculous. Working part-time would help, but it’s not recommended to work crazy hours as it will negatively impact on study, so there’s no way it’s affordable.
For working-class students, there is no ‘bank of mum and dad’ when it comes to PhD study, and that is something the government and universities seem happy to turn a blind eye towards. Money doesn’t grow on trees, and considering how young people have been the most impacted by job losses in the UK due to the pandemic, it seems unrealistic that working class students will have at least £15,000 in savings lying around that they can afford to put towards tuition fees.
Our government needs to invest in the arts and humanities for the sake of our cultural heritage. Our country has such a rich and unique history that is begging to be analysed and explored. I have the enthusiasm, drive, and academic ability to contribute to scholarship and find my niche, so it’s sad that I am held back by financial barriers. Having come from a state school, I would love nothing more than to reassure students that it’s possible to go all the way! But the issue of underfunding in the arts and humanities remains a glaring obstacle.
Now, I know that not everyone wants to do a PhD, and this is by no means an attempt to push anyone towards doing one, but I wanted to speak out on this funding issue because I don’t see it being talked about enough. Undergraduate study is a push for lots of people, and postgraduate study in any form remains frustratingly out of reach for many, but I don’t see the government attempting to make it anymore affordable. Young people are often afraid to talk about their financial situation due to the stigma of having low personal funds and embarrassment of having to miss out on opportunities. This often leads to students getting themselves into debt which follows them throughout their adult life, preventing them from getting a mortgage and causing stress and strain. We don’t talk enough about money in mainstream school, so it’s unsurprising that it isn’t talked about enough during higher education study. It is vital that we open healthy discussions about how to budget, as well as being able to talk about our finances in a calm and healthy way.
Money makes the world go around, and that’s the point that it all comes back to. I hope that in the future, the arts and humanities will be recognised as useful degrees to our government and therefore will be funded appropriately. I hope that students will be able to achieve their dreams regardless of their financial status and I hope that those days are within reach. I am not naïve however, and I’m not blind to the issues going on, but we all can dream.
The world is a tough place right now, and the last thing I want to do is destroy anyone’s hope of fulfilling their potential, but I have to give in to my realist nature every once in a while. It’s my belief that if a student has the aptitude and attitude and has proven themselves to be fit for it, they should be able to access both postgraduate taught and research degrees regardless of their financial status. Classist attitudes towards university achievement still run rampant in our society, especially at the very top, in our (Oxbridge dominated) Conservative Cabinet. If you’re a student considering postgraduate study, my advice would be that keeping realistic and leaving other doors open is the most important thing. We can only hope that the job market improves over the next year, but in the meantime, rest assured that you can do everything the system tells you to do, and it still might not matter that much in the end.
I’d like to repeat that this post is by no means a direct criticism of my university or funding organisations. Freedom of speech is an important part of our democracy, and it is important that we’re not afraid to express our opinions and stand up for our convictions.
The system asks a lot of university students, so I thought I’d list some of the things I’ve done that the system apparently is meant to reward you for:
· Part-time work
· A placement
· Engaging with careers and employment workshops
· Contributing to university social media
· Representing my department
· Aiding in student recruitment
· Promoting the university through work and placement
· Networking with others
· Achieving great results
Overall, the system is flawed! It doesn’t take a genius to figure that one out. I’ve done what I was told to do, and it made my experience so much richer, so I’d getting involved in as much as you can while you’re at university. Just be aware that reaping the rewards of your involvement may not come in the ways that you think.
That’s it, I’m done, moving on to happier things next week I promise! Stay safe out there, and if you’re heading into Easter break, I wish you a nice rest and productive study, and of course lots of chocolate eggs!