This is Great Britain, a place where education is accessible and encouraged to everyone, right? Wrong.
I have personally made my way through all the conventional steps of the English education system, namely, GCSE’s, A-levels, Bachelor’s degree. When faced with the question all undergraduates fear: ‘so, what are you doing after university?’, I decided I wanted to carry on along my track through academia, so after weeks of research and careers appointments, I applied to Masters courses.
The process of applying for a master’s is much like a job application: you send a covering letter explaining your skills, experience, and what you will bring to the university, along with a CV-style document and a list of qualifications. I decided on two courses I would be interested in, the first at Imperial College London, and second at the Royal Veterinary College London.
My university careers advice centre had previously warned me away from continuing my education, saying “a masters is not the same as a bachelors, there isn’t the same support available, see it as a financial investment, which must be directly tied into a career, in order to pay off your expenditure”. While I took this advice into consideration, I believed: access to education in this country is determined by ability, not financial worth, so as long as I perform well, I will be supported, and so I applied.
A few months later, I was thrilled to receive an email telling me I had been accepted into Imperial. The course I had chosen would directly lead to a career in science media, through work placements in the Natural History Museum or science journals like Nature and New Scientist. I was so excited to have been accepted into the 5th highest ranking university in the UK, and was feeling very optimistic about the future.
However, before clicking the magic ‘accept’ button, I was reading through the fine print of the terms & conditions, and noticed that the maximum government support you receive for a masters is £11,222 if your course starts after August 2020. I was confused by this, knowing that the tuition for this 1-year course was £12,200. When you accept an offer from a university, you essentially sign a legal contract, which details a range of stipulations, such as paying 10% of tuition upfront, if you accept and then drop out you must pay a large fee for leaving, and many more hidden charges.
To explain my confusion, I will describe how bachelors funding works. Over the typical 3-year degree, the government gives you two types of payment: your tuition loan, which is the exact price of your teaching (£9,250 per year) paid directly to the university, this money never enters your bank account; and your maintenance loan, which is means-tested based on household income, deposited into your bank account, and is supposed to be used for rent, transport, food, clothes, and other essentials (maximum £9,203 per year). At the end of a bachelor’s degree, the typical UK student is in debt to the government approximately £53,250: the combined value of 3 years of tuition and maintenance loans.
There was anger when the government maintenance donations were changed in 2010, from non-repayable grants to loans which must be repaid, with an additional interest rate of 3%. Despite the tuition loans being deducted from your pay for the next 30 years, students were still grateful that support was available to fund them through their education.
So, having made full use of these arrangements during my degree, I foolishly expected that the same rules would apply as I carried on through education. However, once you progress past a bachelors, the tuition fee loan from the government is scrapped, instead they give you a singular payment of ~£11,000, which is expected to cover both the tuition and all other living costs combined.
Not wanting to be too disheartened upon this discovery, I decided to do some research and calculations. The shortfall of £1,000 left of my tuition to pay, in addition to a years’ worth of London rent and living cost was making my master’s offer look less attainable.
Bear in mind, for the past 3 years I have had to work a part-time job to support myself through a full-time science degree, even with the means-tested support from the government. So ultimately, without this government support I was sure I couldn’t afford to live in London for a year. However, I was still determined to accept my offer from Imperial, so I did some hypothetical number crunching, to see how much money I would realistically need to have.
If rent in London is £600 per month (based on research of property let sites), this would be £7,200 spent on rent for the year. A rough estimate of living costs for London, with food, transport, and other essentials, comes to around £400-£500 per month (£5,400 yearly); addition of these estimates comes to £12,600, meaning I would need this much money to live on, in addition to my tuition amount of £12,200, in order to accept my masters offer. The grand total being £24,800, for a 1-year course.
When you take into account the government loan of £11,000, which would of course go towards paying off the majority of my tuition, I still require £13,800. This was a completely unattainable amount for me, and absolutely burst the bubble of my excitement and success. I decided to call the university admissions department in the morning for some advice.
However, after explaining my situation to an admissions officer at Imperial, her guidance was: “I’m sorry to hear about your circumstances, however there is extremely limited support for postgraduate students, from the university and the government, and my professional advice to you would be to decline our offer this year, and come back to apply again when you have enough money yourself”. I remember this conversation extremely clearly.
I am not someone to give up at the first hurdle and refusing to accept that this was the reality of the situation, I searched for other avenues. This was time constrained however, as you only have 28 days to either accept or decline an offer, so I needed to find funds, and fast.
Through my research I found that some people use private funding from philanthropists and companies, so I researched lists of ‘Britain’s highest givers’, found contact details and sent letters of appeal, to ask for their sponsorship through my education, but received no replies. I also found a database of charities who support students in need, but they were all very specific and had narrow time windows for new applications for funding; some examples would be the ‘Baylies Educational Foundation’, which offers education support only for people living in Dudley, or the ‘Colt Foundation’ which solely supports students doing the Occupational Hygiene course at the University of Aberdeen or Applied Physiology at King’s College London. I could not find a single charity that I would be accepted into, as most of them have geographical or subject-matter restrictions that I did not fit into. Additionally, due to their small, local nature, they mostly offered a maximum grant of around £500 each, meaning that I would need to be supported by 28 charities, in order to cover my estimated living cost of £13,800. These factors, in addition to the time limit on my application, made this route unviable.
After exhausting all these options, and spending weeks researching different forums, databases, and loan providers, I was now 2 days away from my application deadline, feeling extremely defeated and let down. I knew that I would not be able to fulfil the financial aspect of my contract with the university, and for this sole reason, I had to decline the offer.
Readers of this might ask: Why doesn’t she do a masters in a cheaper part of the country? Why doesn’t she just live at home and save money on rent? Why can’t her family pay for her to continue education? Why can’t she just work to earn money and pay her own way through?
Going back to the statement made by my career’s counsellor, I was now viewing a master’s as a purely transactional interaction, which you must view as a pay-forward investment into your future career. I researched thousands of courses all over the country, going through all the modules, assessments, and requirements, and found two courses that ticked every box I was looking for. I didn’t see the point in putting myself through this hugely stressful experience, with extreme financial strain, if the course content wasn’t completely perfect for me. I imagined myself doing this course at Imperial and it made me feel excited, hopeful, and enthusiastic. I felt precisely how the career’s advisor said I should feel about this decision, and I still had to decline.
It is absolutely true that the cost of living in London is extremely high, but it was never the location that drew me to this course. If this course were available in a cheaper region, I would have still applied for it, and would be just as keen to accept. It was just an unfortunate coincidence that the master’s course I loved was in the worst location for me financially. I could definitely have applied and perhaps been accepted into universities in areas with cheaper rent, such as Cardiff, Bristol, Leicester, and been in a better financial situation. However, the more fundamental questions are: why should I be forced to make a huge life decision like this based on money, when access to education and self-betterment in this country is supposed to be based on ability and effort; how is it fair that someone less enthusiastic or qualified than me, should get a place due to a rich family, when I know I would consistently give 100% effort to studies and work a part-time job to support myself?
Once you get past a certain level of education it appears that the system becomes so elitist that it is now inaccessible to all, except the established upper classes in the position to give their children £25,000 for a year-long qualification. When I was 18, studying politics, a teacher proudly stated that the UK is based on meritocracy: a system in which advancement in society is based on an individual’s capabilities and merits rather than on the basis of family, wealth, or social class. I now question how true that really is.
The question of living at home during a masters, and travelling with the rest of the commuters up to London was heavily considered, but due to rising train ticket prices, this process would cost me around £6,000 for the year (only £1,200 less than London rent), and would be much more time-consuming and exhausting.
My seemingly last and final option is either funding myself or help from family members.
My family falls into the category of what the Conservative government likes to call ‘JAMs’ (Just About Managing). We have a house, pay all our bills, always have food and internet, and have all the normal modern luxuries like laptops, TV, gaming console, and smartphones. JAMs are not necessarily low-income families, but are what Labour call ‘the squeezed middle’, where due to tax brackets, inflation, and stagnation of pay-rises, they are not able to save large amounts, despite working extremely hard.
I would never expect that my parents should pay for me to funded through life and give me everything I want; that is not the reality of the world, and I would never wish to be a financial burden on them. I wouldn’t be as proud of my accomplishments if I knew I hadn’t worked for them myself. Despite this, I know that they would offer to give me the £13,800 I need, if they had it to give. But as Jay Z once said, ‘if you can’t afford to buy it twice, you can’t really afford it’.
So, my last option is where we are today, I am still just as determined and excited to take this master’s course at Imperial, and plan on re-applying next year as soon as applications open. However, in the intervening period, I will be working full-time, paying rent for my own place, and living frugally, with the long-term goal of finally getting to accept that offer.
It is of course not as simple as that, as even after working full-time for a year, due to tax and rent costs, I’ve estimated that I will be able to save approximately £7,000, leaving a further £6,000 still to find. Meaning I will still be in the position of trying to find support from charities and other organisations, but this time I will have a whole year to dedicate to this task, so I am slightly more hopeful.
The real point behind writing this piece is to shed some light on the reality of the education system in this country, and to use my own experience as an example of what thousands of hopeful students go through every year. How many bright, excited, talented young people, who have the potential to bring so much to the world, are forced to abandon their goals, and not fulfil their abilities, simply due to money?
This issue is multi-faceted but starts with the absolutely extortionate fees that universities are charging, and the lack of government support in this area. University was free up until 1998, and when tuition fees were first introduced, they were around £1,000 per year. In comparison to what we see today, with a one-year course costing £12,200 this is a shocking rise, but master’s can cost up to £25,000 depending on the institution. Where are our taxes going in this sector, and why doesn’t encouraging education appear to be the governments priority? Why aren’t we allowing people to learn for learning’s sake, for the pure love of a subject, to broaden your mind, but instead forcing the monetisation of knowledge? The current situation is wrong, and in a country this wealthy there is no excuse as to why education is still being restricted from the working and middle classes.