Students! Graduates! Show what you owe!
My alma mater^. (Photo credit)
I was really interested in – and shocked by – this recent xoJane article in which young folks across the pond share the extent of their debts, and talk a little about how they accumulated them. I think that encouraging discussion about this issue is really important – too many students shoulder too much debt in this day and age, and too many struggle alone without any real idea of how to deal with the massive financial responsibilities they’re lumbered with. The article showed me that the UK clearly has less of a student debt problem than the US – but with cuts to service provision (especially in FE) coupled with massive fee hikes (thanks, Dave and George, Alex and Mike!), that may be set to change.
The xoJane article encourages other young people to get in on the conversation and share their own debt, be it the result of student loans or personal purchases… so here goes.
I graduated here^! (Photo credit)
My MA (Hons) in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh was barely government funded at all. As a Scottish student, I was fees-free and graduate-endowment-free – something I am eternally grateful to the devolved Scottish government for. I still needed to pay my living costs – including buying a shit ton of books as I astutely picked a little-taken-up English Literature & Scottish Literature joint honours – so naturally, I applied for a student loan. My parents’ joint income was assessed, and found to be within the “maximum” threshold, meaning that my loan would be in the “minimum” threshold (NB: though my ‘rents have a decent standard of living, they are by no means Lord and Lady Ponsonby-Smythe). That meant that in my first year, I got roughly £700 on loan. That’s for the whole year.
As a result, I worked my butt off to earn money to survive. In term-time I had a weeknight job as a housekeeper and nanny to a ten-year-old boy. This was hard work, and the lady of the house was pretty unpleasant to me. But I definitely bonded with the boy I was looking after, and the job kept me really, really fit – entertaining a sport-crazy ten year old and cleaning a posh Edinburgh townhouse from top to bottom? Better than dieting, trust me.
The nanny job ran out in the Spring, and I started working for a market research call centre that some of my flatmates did ad-hoc shifts for. The work was infrequent and the pay was horrendous, but it was that rare thing: an easy-going call centre. You could wear whatever you liked, take breaks whenever you wanted, and there were only targets to meet on certain projects. Over the summer I also signed on to a temp agency and was immediately allocated permanent, near-full-time work as a legal secretary (how times have changed!). I hated every minute, but it was food money.
For the final three years of my degree my parents were supporting two kids at Uni – my sister headed to study in England the year after I started. My loan was oh-so-generously upped by about £200 in response to this. During this time I still worked way over the 15 hours per week recommended by the University. I held down a job as a telephonist for the local authority’s Social Care department, took on the odd project at the call centre, and did at least ten hours a week of freelance one-to-one tutoring in English, Creative Writing and Drama. I also lived in dirt-cheap accommodation that was probably, according to government guidelines about square footage per person, ‘overcrowded.’ (I didn’t care. After a disastrous attempt to live in a conventional student flat, I loved both the dirt-cheap places I ended up in.)
The lovely library^. (Photo credit)
Things picked up after my undergrad, but I was lucky – I just about squeaked into postgraduate employment as the heavy door of recession was closing on the UK economy. I started teaching Higher English at Edinburgh’s Telford College, covering a staff member who was off on long-term sick leave. The job paid more per hour than I’d ever dreamed of in my house-cleaning, ten-year-old-wrangling, cold-calling days, but it was constantly in jeopardy – the staff member I was covering might come back any day and take her classes back. Happily, I got more hours, and then an actual real contract, and then permanency. At the same time as this job appeared, I moved into a Masters in Creative Writing, still at the University of Edinburgh. I was awarded a scholarship for my Masters that covered all my fees. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I am still so grateful to the Universe for handing me this stuff.
I graduated from my Masters in the midst of a pretty hectic and quite dark time for my mental health, which was probably what accounted for the borderline-crazy decision to go straight into a full-time PhD (still at the University of Edinburgh) without a break. Thanks to my funk, I didn’t do much in the way of funding applications (the few I did fill out were summarily rejected anyway. It’s creative writing, after all). What I did do was have a great conversation with my parents, during which they gave me the choice: we’ll pay for your some-day wedding, or we’ll pay for your PhD. You pick. It was a total no brainer.
I’m now nearing the end of my PhD and – real-time read out!—have the following debts:
Student loan: roughly £3,000. Thanks to my lovely job, I’ve already started paying it back.
Personal debt: My PhD has cost £3,000 per year. In spite of our agreement, I do still feel like I owe my parents this £9,000 – if not more, in fact, as they always stepped in to help me out whenever I was stuck during my undergrad years. I also have credit card debt of roughly £1,200. This has just gradually crept up and up over the years, but I am managing it.
Total debt: £13,200
Thank you, beautiful Edinburgh^. (Photo credit)
This is absolutely nothing – certainly compared to some of the people at xoJane and to some of my peers. My sister went to an English university and as a result, has more debt than this solely from her undergrad degree. I have peers who graduated at the same time as me, or just after, who still haven’t found full time or permanent employment. Over in the xoJane comments there are a lot of people giving thanks for their situation, and I definitely need to get in on that act. First, and most importantly, I am so utterly grateful to my parents for that amazing ‘wedding or PhD?’ conversation (I mean, really, is there even a choice there?!), for always being there to help me out with life’s scary gas bill moments, and for always trusting my vision, even when I came up with ideas like “I’m going to study for eight consecutive years without stopping!” I also have to thank Scotland for being a fantastic place to study during the mid-naughties. Particularly I have to thank Edinburgh, for being a tiny, walkable city with mega-cheap housing options (if you’re willing to live in a hippie commune with a mad, deaf cat!) and plenty of student-friendly cafes, thrift stores and free outdoor activities! I have to thank the friends and flatmates who’ve come and gone over the years… and my employer. Thanks, no-longer-Telford. I can has proper grown up job!
So. What do YOU owe…?
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Tags: artists, arts, being poor, books, edinburgh, education, fees, fees hike, helena andrews, impoverished, poetry, poets, poverty, publication, publishing, scotland, student debt, student loans, students, tuition fees, writers, writing, xojane