Last week I went to a twenty-first birthday party. This was initially unnerving for, as with weddings, you find yourself remembering your own bash. Dim birthday memories returned of a night singing with a jazz trio at Edinburgh?s old Calton Studios with half Eng. Lit. 3 crowding round the bar and me up on stage belting out 'If They Could See Me Now'. Which given the crush they probably couldn?t. Happy days. Yet last week as the wine flowed, it was the guests of my generation who turned into giggly irresponsible teenagers, while the students remained soberingly mature and wanted to talk to me seriously about personal finance. On Saturday night!
A curious apartheid which exists between students and the rest of the population. Unless you are one yourself, or have student children, or you are a University employee, the student community remains an enigma. We read about grant changes but tend to see students through the prism of our own pampered studenthood which is now outdated and irrelevant. Their image in the press too as whinging, bolshie victims is unfortunate. This isn?t fair, but it is as if we cannot forgive them their lack of joie de vivre. For if life is bad for them, when they have youth and beauty , what must it be like for us?
Last week, Scotland?s students returned for the summer term. Just six weeks to go before exams bite and then summer holidays begin when they must find work to pare down the overdraft. Next year?s intake will not be so lucky, they will have no grant and will have to take loans through The Student Loans Company of up to ?2800 p.a. plus bank overdrafts and part time jobs. The average debt, so my students friends tell me, is currently ?10K by graduation, but they expect this to rise with the future intakes to ?12K - ?15K. I cannot imagine what such a burden must be like at their age.
The student loans are very reasonable. If you earn ?12K you repay ?15 a month ?17K it is ?52 a month but students rightly argue that the loans should be bigger to keep them from getting into debt with banks and credit card companies and having to working during term time when they should be studying. An NUS survey earlier this year revealed that 42% of students work during the term-time and that over 50% have consider giving up their course through money worries. Hardship seems to be a word attached to the student state like a manacle.
I ask my twenty-one year old birthday boy what are the side effects of all this financial pressure. He replies that it is making many students socially inept, for they either stay in their room to save money or else work. This seems wretched. For at the University networking, making friendships and joining clubs is, let's face it, as important as the studying. But now all this is apparently seen as a bit of a luxury.
Perhaps students today have different expectations? Wander round the Edinburgh University area and you see them talking into mobiles. They also have pagers and are online. Their feelings of insecurity are also perhaps exacerbated through the rapid financial changes they have experienced. UK students have traditionally been public sector animals used to public sector pay unlike their American counterparts who have always had a private sector mindset. Ours have been given TOO little time to adapt, like their parents who suddenly had to stump up for tuition fees. Signs are however that UK students are discovering U.S. chutzpah. The Student Employment Service at Edinburgh University now has 1000 student visitors a week at peak times looking for jobs ranging from bar work to website design. Students are also setting themselves up as freelances, having business cards printed and hustling.
I ring round a few student office bearers in Stirling, St. Andrews and Edinburgh and ask what personal finance training they are given. They mention booklets from banks, but seem amazed when I suggest mandatory classes in money management for every fresher, with refresher classes for the second and third years when the social life really takes off and spending pressures increase. I mention a couple of books every student should read. How To Feed Your Family for ?5 a Day (Thorsons) and The Penny Pincher?s Book (Souvenir Press). Both were published some time ago but Students Associations could order bulk reprints from the publishers at a discount and prevent a lot want and worry.
How proactive and disciplined students have to be about money, for they simply cannot afford to be made victims by poverty. University can be an enormous drain on youthful energy, eating up time which might be better spent in the job market while studying more flexibly, so if young people do commit to full-time study, they must forget about past largesse and make a business plan with a degree priced as an investment. There is never any point spending creative energy worrying about money. If you are going up to University next year, then borrow or work just enough to live reasonably but budget like a Scrooge, and make sure you network like crazy and squeeze out every drop of added value your University can offer. Otherwise please don?t bother, for good jobs go to positive thinkers and youth is too short to be a sad student.
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