Do you NEED to go to university? The question cash-strapped parents need to start asking their children
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Going to university used to be a simple choice made after A-levels. But with the alarming amount of funding parents must provide, families are being priced out of university and, Rachel Moore says, must think again when it comes to post-high school options
For the fifth year, the annual email from Student Finance England, dreaded by every parent of a higher education student, dropped into my inbox.
My younger son 'has applied for student finance for the next academic year and might need your help to get some additional Maintenance Loan and/or a grant to help with his living costs.'
There's no 'might' about it. What student can live on a student loan alone, without top-up from parents or kindly grandparents?
There's so much noise made about student 'debt', but little about the real hard cash that parents need to come up with to help their children survive every year.
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Students can't borrow enough – that's the real story. Until they can, the chasm to make up their rocketing rent and living costs has to be bridged by parents, who are facing financial so many squeezes in every other direction too.
The spiralling 'top-up' demands will soon create a system when only the children of the well-off and comfortable can afford a university education. An average-income family has to make huge sacrifices for a child to become a graduate.
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The lazy young blighters should get a part-time job, cry the curmudgeonly baby-boomers – who, let's remember, got so much for free and easily.
But how easy is it to find part-time work – itself a dwindling opportunity – in a city with term-time influxes of upwards of 17,000 extra people?
As the government apprenticeship targets fall short and half our young people believe that university is the pathway to a bright future, it's time for parents having the 'what next?' discussion with their children to look at the cold hard facts.
It should be going on in every home of 17-year-olds, considering: Is it worth it? Is there another way to get where they want to be? Do they even know where they want to be?
It was a noble idea of Tony Blair that half the UK's young people should go to university. Widening participation is great, but, at what cost to their aspirations and future?
The UK is facing scary skills gaps, but numbers of young people choosing on-the-job technical training via apprenticeships are waning while graduates with first-class dissertations and dreams this will secure them up-the-ladder jobs are flooding the employment market.
Then they get their first real-life shock. Their costly degree guarantees nothing. In fact, graduates are so also-ran, to stand out now they have to embark on another year's study – at extra cost to them and their parents – for a master's degree.
No guarantees with this route either, apart from draining even more cash.
Parents need to be prepared for what is to come, especially in the days of unpaid internships and experience, often stretches far beyond the university years.
My friend, a lone self-employed parent who often works seven days a week to ensure her children have the education they want and keep a roof over her head, has to find £1,700 a month to top up her son and daughter's student loans.
These are her second and third children. She has already supported her older child through a degree and PhD. Worrying about money keeps her awake at night.
Another high-achieving young person I know chose a less prestigious university than the league-table-topping university where she won a place to study law because her parents, who both worked, would struggle to find the extra £1,200 to pay for accommodation at that better university in her first year.
A child from a wealthier family would not have even had to consider the financial burden upon her family, and would have taken her place without a second thought.
In my family's case, both my sons were forensic in their choice of university, choosing league-table-topping universities for their courses and graduate employment. My older son, nearly a year after graduating with a brilliant degree, is currently being supported by his parents to achieve a professional qualification that both his father and I were sponsored and paid to achieve 30-odd years ago.
The qualification, his rent and living costs in Manchester have had to be funded by us, and cash he earned between graduating and starting the course.
More support lies ahead, as he moves to London, where his chosen industry is based – where he will doubtless need help to top up to pay rent and living costs until he earns enough to be self-sufficient.
His wealthy friends, however, have sailed through university with no student loan, bankrolled by their parents and living in flats owned by family members in London.
That's not real life for most of us.
Today's degrees demand a full-scale investment by parents – but one that parents aren't really aware until the last minute.
You won't see this in the blurb about 'optional' parental support. The truth is that students need at least £10,000 a year to live (outside London). A full student loan falls far short.
And, in time, a vision of wider participation will become higher education only for the wealthier. Equality of opportunity in our nation will have slipped backwards.