Three in four students will never settle their university debt

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Anyone wondering why so many 18-year-olds swallow the eye-watering cost of going to university?

Labour reckons its because they feel they have no choice. Since tuition fees were trebled to £9,000 a year in 2011, students emerge an average £44,000 in debt. Shadow education secretary Liam Byrne – who has promised to cut fees by £3,000 a year to £6,000 if elected – thinks that most see their options as so limited that they choose to swallow the cost rather than face the alternatives. The problem is one of perception rather than reality.

Professional bodies like AAT offer great options for people who want to study and advance their careers without taking on the debt associated with a university course. But too few do: one in six young people are unemployed, Byrne said, while the number of apprenticeships available for under-25s is falling.Faced with regular visits to the JobCentre, the thinking goes, many prefer paying off forty-odd grand on the never-never.

That might be true. Because it will – for most – never be paid off. The costs of attending university are now so high that forecasts say three in four students will fail to ever settle the bill. “Most of my friends seem to see fees as free money,” admits a 2012 graduate from Manchester University, “rather than a loan that you are actually supposed to pay off.”

If things go on as they are, we’ll add by 2030 a further £280bn to a national debt that is already spiralling to mind-blowing levels.

So if the taxpayer is going to pick up the bill, you might as well go to university right? Wrong. Education is undermined by lack of enthusiasm.

Research by the celebrated Stanford psychologist Professor Carol Dweck found that students who approached education because they were interested in a subject and wanted to master it were more likely to retain the information and stick at the subject when times were tough than those who simply joined the course to make a certain grade.

We’ll have to wait a few years to see if there was much truth in Byrne’s anecdotal assertion. Are a generation of young people really going to university through a perceived lack of alternatives and a lack of imagination? If so, we may find in a few years that we have fewer lifelong learners in maths, sciences and the noble arts, and many more graduates who have simply forgotten what they were taught.

Ben Walker is the former editor of Accounting Technician.

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