Sitting in the car aged 11 and listening to 5 Live, I distinctly remember the day that a man called Nick Clegg did something terrible, and that, according to the phone-in, “is why no one trusts these bloody politicians”. Twelve years later, as a recent graduate and victim of this remarkable political betrayal, I find myself sitting on a growing mountain of student debt.
Truthfully, I have no idea how much my debt is, and I have no intention of checking soon. I’m not sure I even know how to. Since I don’t earn enough to start paying it back yet, stressing myself out by looking at eye-popping, insurmountable numbers feels fruitless.
Last week, in the US, President Biden announced he will cancel $10,000 in federal student loan debt for people who earn under $125,000 a year. Biden’s plan, targeting lower-earning graduates using an income threshold, largely avoids the charge that student loan forgiveness is simply a tax cut that flows mostly to the affluent.
Although there are many people in the US who argue that this policy doesn’t go far enough to ease the crippling debts that many students are saddled with, I have been looking across the pond in envy.
Sensitive and intelligent people disagree on how to fund higher education. But in the UK the reality is that young people now have a level of debt that even the devisers of the £9,250 fees did not foresee.
David Willetts, who oversaw the tripling of fees as universities minister in the coalition government, urged an urgent government review in 2017. He said a three per cent-above-inflation charge on repayments should be scrapped for “the greater good of preserving a viable graduate repayment system”.
On top of skyrocketing house prices and a crippling cost-of-living crisis, this is yet another bill that young people must foot that previous generations didn’t have to worry about.
Some argue that these tuition fees are just the price you pay for the education and experience you get.
But let’s not forget that many young people spent the majority of their university years in Zoom classes, only allowed to socialise with a pre-prescribed cohort inside the kitchens of their grubby halls. And that’s if they were lucky.
As with many policy areas, the solution isn’t simple. But within British political discourse it seems that we haven’t reached the stage of registering that there is even a problem. Biden’s plans, whether you agree with them or not, have given life to the idea that student debts are not a fiscal reality but a political choice.
If we deem them to be unfair, we can — and should — do something about it.