The student purse then and now

24th September 2009 | Daily Life, Musings | 2 comments

Several good letters in today’s Guardian on the subject of university fees. Various people point out that the older generation in Britain benefited from non-repayable grants. Today’s students have loans, and the average debt when a student graduates is now £15,000. Current students point out angrily that the older generation had it easy with their grants. And of course they are right: we were lucky.

But there’s one thing I don’t understand. When I was a student, we all felt incredibly short of money all the time, despite having grants. Everyone counted the pennies, made instant coffee for one another, and refrained from doing expensive things. We rarely went clothes shopping, rarely went to cafes, rarely ate out, and certainly never went to non-university entertainments for which we had to buy tickets at ‘real’ prices.

Although today’s students have loans, it also seems that they feel much richer than we did. They all have mobile phones, something my generation couldn’t have afforded. They seem to think it’s normal to meet in coffee bars every day and buy £2 cups of coffee. They travel internationally at the drop of a hat. They go to pop concerts which cost as much as buying opera tickets. They regularly go to clubs with entrance charges, and spend large amounts of money on drinks as well. They seem to buy new outfits constantly.

A young friend of ours recently said to me, ‘You said that everyone at university would be scrimping and saving. Well, they aren’t. I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘Let’s not do that, it’s too expensive.’’ I didn’t know what to reply. No doubt the explanation for all this is complex, and it certainly baffles me. Is it that certain things (like travel) have become evilly, artificially cheap, or is it just that there’s a lot more money sloshing around the system these days?


  1. Catalyst

    From my perspective (5th year undergrad music student), student loans create an artificial sense of financial security, so the results, as you’ve written about, are students being a lot more loose with their cash. Many people I know take out the maximum amount they are able to in student loans, which is really far more money than they need for living expenses and tuition! So, of course, all that extra, rather than being paid right back onto the loan, gets spent on concerts, restaurants, etc. The average 18-year-old isn’t able to think far enough into the future to realize how ridiculous this is. Besides that, the peer pressure you mentioned is another big factor. “If my friends are all squandering their loans, I’ll be the loser left alone in dorms on Friday night if I don’t go along with it too!”
    I’ve tried to break the trend, and have partially succeeded. I’ll have about $8000 in loans when I graduate. Not bad.
    (Also, we do go to more concerts, because a lot of orchestras these days offer extremely cheap tickets for students! We feel it’s worthwhile to spend $12 a ticket to see several great concerts a semester, especially when we know we’ll be paying $50 a ticket for it in a few years!)

    • Susan Tomes

      How interesting to have an American perspective!
      Thank you for this insight.


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