Our debts are large, our hearts are heavy – but being a student is still worth it

Money woes, stress, a lack of jobs at the end of it: university has never been tougher. But it can still provide you with the best years of your life

If student cliches are to be believed, university life once resembled an all-expenses-paid trip to a new town, where you could expect to meet your life partner, go on some marches, and turn up to a few exams right at the end. This year’s cohort of first years might, like their predecessors, be planning Ikea trips and breezily dumping their high-school sweethearts in anticipation of freshers’ week, but with fees likely to rise, no more grants and graduate employment levels looking ropey, they enter uni life in a far more precarious position than their parents did.

Most immediately, that classic cultural exchange, the year abroad studying in Europe, is at risk. Constant access to perfect Instagram fodder, dubious language skills and starting every sentence with “well, in Italy...” for six months upon return are but a few of the benefits of the Erasmus programme. But thanks to their Brexit-voting elders, students may be excluded from the scheme, according to a recent report.

Being forced to stay in the UK is the least of their problems. The financial forecast is enough to make them throw in the academic towel and become a pro YouTuber. Next year, fees will start to push £9,250 a year, even for existing students. Loans have replaced grants for the poorest, and that’s assuming that the prospect of financial doom hasn’t put you off completely. Students’ debts are large, and their hearts are heavy. Even the financially clued-up have no idea how much they’ll end up paying back, as unpredictable factors such as starting salaries, interest rates and the whims of a future government will all affect terms of repayment.

UK - London - Student education fees protestA young student protests outside parliament in Westminster, against spending cuts, tuition fees and student debt. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

The most alarming consequence of all this uncertainty is the surge in the number of students seeking counselling – up 28% at Russell Group institutions from 2012 to 2015. Mental health charity Mind blames it on financial stresses, coupled with big questions over future employment.

It’s unsurprising that with all this mounting pressure, today’s students are hardly slackers. According to a recent survey, students who started in the first year of higher fees began career research earlier, and focused more on work experience than their predecessors. With students more conscious of how much they’re paying, they’re also more aware of what they’re getting for that price. At the same time, many expect to be given – when perhaps before they hoped to earn – some education in return. We are, with good reason, a generation of students more entitled than ever. All we want is to land a fulfilling job as soon as we graduate that pays enough to have multiple streaming subscriptions. Is that so much to ask, world?

Away from the lecture halls, student unions are largely run by well-paid managers rather than students themselves, becoming better versed in PR than protest. Unions of old helped students run campaigns; now they’re just as likely to be throwing them out of the freshers’ fair for getting their free speech on. But despite what Richard Dawkins might tell you, opinions on both sides of the “safe space” debate are catered for audibly and angrily on campuses today. We might have fallen off the electoral roll, but you wouldn’t know it from our Facebook statuses.

Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts.
Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts. Photograph: Andrew Benge/Redferns

And what of student culture? Arguments about Corbyn aside, cheap shots, foam parties and uni-lads are still the flavour of student nightlife. Sadiq Khan might be appointing a “night czar” for London, but the recent closure of Fabric is part of a wider trend of disappearing nightlife. Figures suggest the number of clubs in Britain has halved since 2005.

It’s not all bad news for those hoping to get some culture, though. Unions still double up as gig venues: Nao, Wild Beasts and Glass Animals are just some of the acts playing at them in the next few months. Uni is also your last chance to form a band and people not roll their eyes. Coldplay met at UCL, and if their confounding success isn’t encouragement enough I don’t know what is. Art, am-dram, film-making and comedy are catered for by societies. And socially, it’s an ideal set-up: there are few other opportunities in life to filter potential friends via their hobbies.

Because, ultimately, being a student is about much more than what goes on your certificate at the end of it all. So half of us will still be living at home six months after graduating. It could be worse: there’s milk in the fridge, you don’t have to pay to use the washing machine and, at the end of the day, you’re likely to earn £6,000 more a year with a degree than without one. With endless potential for meet-cutes and a little bit of shared trauma, uni still has all the conditions for making lifelong friends. And even if you do get a Desmond, don’t panic: nobody cares after the summer.


Grace Rahman

The GuardianTramp

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