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A thoroughly middle class perspective: today’s Guardian article on studying abroad

October 3, 2015

The Guardian has a long piece today on study abroad as a way of saving on tuition fees, based on a selection of case studies.

Over several pages, readers are briefed on the different fee regimes (nil or very low) in a number of European countries.    But nowhere does the piece find space to offer one vital piece of information: students who go to study in Europe lose their entitlement to grants and loans for living costs (unless they are from Scotland and attend one of a small number of institutions covered by a 2-year pilot scheme which, when figures were last offered, was benefiting fewer than 20 students).

In only one case does the piece look at how the student is managing their living costs.  Discussing Takano, the first in his family to go to university, studying in Denmark, it says:

Financially, he is much better off. His accommodation costs him around £230 a month, including bills. He’s living off savings, with a bit of financial help from his parents. “I’m budgeting quite carefully, so right now I’m surviving on rye bread and tins of food. And I’m looking for a part-time job, because there’s a scheme here where, if you get a job working 10-12 hours a week, then the government will give you £250 a month. You’re also eligible for 0% interest loans.” And, of course, his tuition is free.

Mostly though how students will fund their living costs is a non-issue for the writer (Rosie Ifould) and her interviewees. The only other relevant comment is that rents are often cheaper.

In its own unthinking way, this piece encapsulates all that is wrong about the way we discuss student finance, not only in Scotland but the wider UK.  It’s all about fees. The piece is pretty much irrelevant for any young person who will need help from the state to cover their living costs while at university.  They have to make do with a fleeting reference to the availability of help with living cost support from the Danish government, under some circumstances.

Notice also that Takano’s plan to work at least 10 hours a week while studying full-time is accepted without any comment on how that might impact on his studies or ability to take part in wider university life.  Yet the hidden inequality in patterns of term time working is one of the dogs should be barking louder in current debates. As Prof Claire Callender says in this 2008 article:

Term-time employment among Britain’s undergraduates is a growing phenomenon but it has received scant attention from government and policy makers. … [This article] shows that irrespective of the university students attended, term-time working had a detrimental effect on both their final year marks and their degree results. The more hours students worked, the greater the negative effect. Consequently, students working the average number of hours a week were a third less likely to get a good degree than an identical non-working student. Some of the least qualified and poorest students are most adversely affected perpetuating existing inequalities in HE.

The piece offers instead an unrelentingly middle class perspective, where living cost support is not even worth discussing because, presumably, parents will pay.

No wonder governments in Scotland and England have felt so able to rein back spending on student grants.  The attention of the media remains firmly on saving young people from better off backgrounds from debt for fees, reflecting no doubt the socio-economic background of broadsheet readers (no matter what their ideological position: Rosie Ifould has written an interesting piece on her own upbringing as the child of left-wing teachers).

How those from poorer backgrounds are expected to pay their rent or eat (at all in the case of this article, or without incurring large debts if they stay at home) remains very much a second order issue in the press –  if that.

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