Exploiting the Student: Why higher education is more about money than ever before

By Olivia Kline, GLOBUS correspondant

UNiDAYS, Student Beans – we love to hate them. They provide discounts and offers that give students… well what exactly? A 20% discount at Pretty Little Thing? A voucher for dinner at Zizzi’s? At first glance, only the positives appear, which makes us believe that materialistic living is affordable. Who doesn’t want to get a better deal when eating out or buying new clothes? Unfortunately, we cannot keep looking at this issue with rose-tinted glasses on. These discounts are not the problem, but they are a symptom of the exploitation of students by the higher education system.

Now more than ever, society has witnessed the effects of decreased spending in the private and commercial sector. So much so that the government introduced the Eat Out to Help Out initiative in 2020 to jumpstart economic activity in the country. This scheme provided the population with 50% off the cost of food when eating out at participating businesses. However, within a few months, COVID-19 cases began to rise, and the blame has been targeted towards 18- to 25-year-olds. This demographic is strongly associated with university students. The problem with the scheme is not that it failed to restart the economy but that it targeted young people and exploited them in order to achieve that aim. Initiatives like this are simply a way of marketing that aims to persuade onlookers to grab a “spectacular” deal with open arms. The difference between the Eat Out to Help Out scheme and student discounts is a simple one. While the government programme was an attempt to reintroduce the hospitality industry into a post-lockdown environment, student discounts continue to encourage people in higher education to inject an enormous amount of revenue into the economy. They do this by creating an illusion of saving money. For example, at Pretty Little Thing, the average student discount is around 10% – applying that to a £20 order equals a mere £2.00 discount – barely covering Standard Delivery.

A recent survey by Save the Student, deduced that the average university student spends £795 a month, including rent and utilities. The cost of average rent and utilities totals £455 – nearly 60% of student expenditure. Data also shows that out of 3,161 participants, the average student spends an average of £46 on going out, £29 on clothes and £33 on takeaways per month. This adds up to 13% of total monthly expenditure. On its own, this does not tell us much; it reveals more if we apply it to an average student maintenance loan (a minimum of £3,410). When broken down to a monthly basis over 30 weeks of term, students spend an average of £3,240 a year on going out, clothes, and takeaways.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s up for interpretation. Since students continue to invest heavily into the some of the economy’s most profitable outlets in society, money received from maintenance loans gets redistributed back into the economy nearly instantly. This also includes tuition fees. For the average UK resident attending university, the expected tuition fee is £9,250 per year. Most students will rely heavily on the Student Finance England (SFE) scheme to fund their studies. Following higher education, SFE will require recent graduates to repay their student loan if their salary is 9% of the repayment threshold – which is of £19,390 (as of 6th April 2020). International students, however, can be expected to pay up to £38,000 per year in tuition fees unless they receive a scholarship or funding from the university. Data suggests that between 2018 and 2019, there were 486,645 international students in the UK. If all of them paid the full tuition fees without subsidises from institutions, they would inject a staggering £1.84 bn into the education sector. 

If we look back at previous years, there has been a steady increase in the number of young people attending higher education since the 2000s. This is in part a result of the New Labour Education Policy put forward by Tony Blair. In 2001, during a conference at the University of Southampton, Tony Blair argued that there was “no greater ambition for Britain than to see a steadily rising proportion gain the huge benefits of a university education as school standards rise, meeting [the] goal of 50% of young adults progressing to higher education by 2010”. On September 19th 2019, this symbolic target was reached. However, its effect is subdued by a brutal economic symmetry favouring young people in the wealthiest areas. The number of students has almost doubled since 1992, and today, a record number of 2.4 million students are off to university. Although students (international and domestic) only make up a small percentage of the population, those in higher education generate £95 billion (yes -billion) for the UK economy, supporting more than 940,000 jobs across the nation. Nevertheless, 76% of students in England feel they do not receive enough information on how universities spend their money.

In September, it will be 20 years since Blair’s speech was made.  The burdening question is – has the higher education system changed? Quite simply, yes. It has changed but in ways that Mr. Blair could not have predicted. Students are now a commodity, a valuable addition to the economy. Higher education, and the students that attend provide a continuous input into the economy. Even today, despite the pandemic, students are still paying fees – regardless of online teaching, and the limited resources available. Many are still on campus areas despite the risks and increases in COVID-19 cases.

This article does not attempt to explain where students’ money goes. However, instead it asks you to question the reality of the higher education system. It seems that, like a student discount, universities market their facilities as desirable to not miss offers. Arguably, they hide the reality of profiting from student expenses and tuition fees. Will the higher education system change as students continue to provide the economy with a sustainable amount of commerce? Or instead, will it instead continue to exploit the student?

Header Image by Philip Veater on Unsplash

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