Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

We must ease student debt, we owe it to our children

Education should be the right of everyone - not just those who can afford it, says Lex Hayes

As a principal of a non-selective controlled post-primary school, I applaud the Belfast Telegraph campaign to 'Stop the fees hike'. However, one issue that has been largely relegated to the sidelines is the likelihood the 'fear of debt' which will follow a three or four-year graduate course will prevent students from working-class families applying to university.

Like Professor Richard Barnett of the University of Ulster, I am also the first in my family to attend a higher education institution.

International research shows that such students are already at a disadvantage in terms of home support and guidance compared to students whose parents or siblings have direct experience of higher education.

The Government has highlighted an increase in the provision of grants and bursaries available to such students and those who are from less well-off backgrounds as proof that these groups will not be dissuaded from participation.

The evidence I have from talking to able, talented prospective students in my own school is that they will not apply in the first place and thus the grants and bursaries will not influence their thinking.

As these awards are means-tested, there can be no cast-iron guarantee that families will be successful in accessing such assistance.

This has been the experience of my colleagues in other non-selective schools. Joanne Stuart recognised such factors when she concluded in her recent report for the Department of Education and Learning that tuition fees in Northern Ireland should not rise.

I sincerely hope that her redraft in the 'post-cuts landscape' will come to the same conclusion.

The likelihood of these students entering university is already much less than pupils of the same ability and achievement from the higher socio-economic groupings as evidence from universities here has shown. I fear the threat of an extra £24,000 debt over a degree course will prove the straw that breaks the camel's back for many of the 70% of my Year 14 pupils who currently apply and win a place in their first choice university.

The extra earning power of graduates has been shown on average to be around £13,000-per-annum more than non-graduates.

However, to the students who have been counselled against debt throughout their schooling this is a carrot dangled on too long a stick. They have no guarantee of a job and a figure of what they 'might earn' in a rosy future will not overcome their inbred fear of large debts.

The 'double whammy' that could affect these able but vulnerable learners is the removal of the EMA allowance during their final two years at school. Again, in areas of deprivation, and in families where aspiration is largely provided solely by the student, this award has allowed students to participate without engaging in a level of employment that impinges on their studies.

The removal of this allowance will result in able pupils leaving after GCSE exams.

The danger for future generations is that higher education will once again be available only for those families who can afford to send their children to university rather than be a right for all those young people who have achieved the necessary level of education.

The time has come for politicians in Northern Ireland to show that the path to recovery for our country will be through the provision of world class education in all of our schools for all who deserve it, not only for those who can pay.

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