Education University

UK student loans: just a graduate tax?

In the UK, as in the US, higher education access is supported through government loans. In the UK, this system has been in place since 1998/99 when student fees of £1000 were introduced for undergraduate courses. By the time I went to university in 2002, this had risen to around £3000 and, at the time of writing fees for undergraduate courses in the UK stand at £9,250 per year of the course.

Much has been made over the introduction of tuition fees and the main vehicle used to pay for them – student loans. In this post I want to explore reasons behind the introduction of fees and loans in the UK and what some of the implications of these may be.

Colleagues I have discussed this with often maintain that loans are just a graduate tax, that graduates only begin to pay them off when earning above a certain level, and that if they are not paid off in 30 years they are erased. This may be true, but, I have felt uneasy, in my role as a university guidance counselor about just dismissing the implications for young people who decide, on our advice, to get themselves up to almost £30,000 in debt on fees alone, ignoring all other costs of being a student. This post is really an opportunity for me to explore this topic in a little more detail.

Why loans?

A little known theory in economics, known as Human Capital Theory (HCT), asserts that investments made in the development of skills and knowledge, through training and education, will improve the productivity of an individual and thus the economy as a whole. On the personal level, the rationale, from this view, for investing in education is for the real term pay off you will get from getting a better paid job. On a macro scale, the amount that a government invests in education then, so the thinking goes, the greater productivity of the economy and subsequent increase in GDP.

But there is a trade off for a government. Investment in Higher Education (HE) is expensive, and has a lower rate of return according to many studies. And so governments are less willing to invest tax payers money, especially for degrees that may have a low return on investment.

Enter, Milton Friedman and the free market, which suggests that the market for HE may be improved, and institutions made more competitive, if the state reduces its input, oversight and regulation. Friedman advocates for fees for HE be covered by the student in the form of loans from the government

So, naturally, based on two economic rationales, free markets and HCT, the case for HE investment through student loans is made. What is the problem?


One of my concerns around this issue which is linked to others is the impact it has on choice. When we begin to look at degrees in terms of return on investment, then some degrees seem to have a higher value – graduates from these degrees get paid more and therefore can pay off their debts more easily. There are two problems with this.

Imagine that degrees in computer science command the highest salaries for post graduates. This is because in the labour market there is a shortage of these skills. As more and more people switch to studying this degree because it pays better, the labour market becomes flooded with these skills and the price of labour goes down. Thus the return on the investment goes down as wages are driven down by competition. This isn’t the graduates fault who may now be saddled with debt that is harder to pay off.

Secondly, should the value of a degree be measured purely in these monetary terms? As I have got older I have appreciated more and more what can be learned in non science undergraduate courses (I did three science A Levels and a science first degree) like Arts which tend to command lower salaries. There are a whole variety of reasons why these degrees have more intrinsic and instrumental value than just monetary value for a graduate but they stand to die out and receive less funding if individuals stop applying for them, which they will do if they are thinking about returns on investment alone.

Related to this point and the point below about equity is the idea that those that do have to worry about debt, those students coming from less affluent backgrounds will feel more pressure to not take a degree that doesn’t have a good return of investment, so we have a class or wealth divide around who really has choice of degree path, with the more affluent students, having more rational choice. So the first charge to lay at the door of the idea of loans is that they actually reduce choice for poorer students.

Equity and Access

Costs of entry to HE can present very significant barriers to individuals. This is the problem of access. If a government wants to promote a genuine free market for the sake of the economy, then the assumptions that everyone can access that market has to be addressed. In other words the government needs to ensure that all those “deserving” of a place in the appropriate labour market are able to get access to the education and training they need to be able to compete in that labour market effectively. And here is the rub, the introduction of fees raises a barrier to individuals who despite a reduced socio-economic background may have the personal qualities to make the most of the labour market at the other side.

Fees and loans may not present much a problem to members of society who have the social and economic capital in order to cover the costs, but they will raise very real barriers to children, with just as much, if not more merit, for whom the prospect of becoming £30,000+ in debt is a very frightening prospect. So the second charge to lay at the door of fees and loans, is that they do nothing (at the very least) to provide equity in society. If we want a just, socially mobile society, where individuals are not constrained by the random act of birth, then we need to think hard about the implications of these loans.

There is another element to this. Many people understand the idea of genes and inheritance, and probably can understand the idea that certain biological traits are inherited from parents. But what often is missed is that children inherit their early environment too. Bourdieu writes about this in terms of cultural capital. Plomin also references this idea in his work. Children are born, at random, into a particular family environment, just in the same way they are born into a body made from a particular mix of genes. The family environment will transmit cultural capital in the form of knowledge, customs, understandings particular to that family. To use an extreme example, some children will grow up exposed to ballet, opera and fine art. Others will be exposed to cold, fend for yourself dinner, because mum and dad are both out having to work their third job.

Which group of children will be best placed to make the best decisions in terms of university courses? Which will be more likely to understand how to make the most out of university and capitalise on their experience?

This problem of equity and access leads to a third problem: social reproduction. Children who are born in the “right” place will be more able to go on to reproduce those conditions for their children, while the others will find it much harder to shift gears so to speak.


So let’s lay that aside. I have outlined above three misgivings about the system: Choice, Equity, Access. I don’t claim that the points briefly expressed above are enough on their own to call for a change in the system, but they should at least give serious pause for thought. They certainly did for me when I came across them.

A fourth problem with student fees and loans is debt. And there are two elements to this for me.

Firstly, there is a general issue linked to the ideas above which goes along these lines: Those students who are already disadvantaged are the ones who will be most disadvantaged, on average, by this system. As I alluded to earlier, some students will not be put off by fees. Their families might be able to pay them directly or at least pay off the loans quickly once the graduate leaves and gains employment. Or, some parents may be able to make interest free loans to their kids on the understanding that these are paid back. Fair enough.

But many kids won’t be in this fortunate position. This will be because they come from families that are not that fortunate (yes, unfortunate, not lazy). So these kids, the ones that actually need the levelling affects of education, are the ones that will end up picking up the bill of debt.

Accepting this means that you can’t argue that loan repayment is a graduate tax – not every graduate will need to pay it. It’s a poor-graduates tax. It hits those from the poorest backgrounds the hardest. The less money you have going into uni, the more money you will have to pay back, either because you have to borrow more, or because it will take you longer to pay back.

And this is doubly true if they haven’t had the advice growing up (Remember cultural capital?) about maximising their investment and decide to spend £30,000 on Beckham studies.

The second issue about debt for me is the specific issue of interest rates, that the UK government employs. I was staggered when I looked at the student loans available to me as a postgraduate student this year. The UK government was willing to lend me money at a whopping 5.2%.


The Bank of England has lowered interest rates to 0.1%, mortgages are at an all time low, and I can get a loan from Nationwide for £20,000 at 2.9%. Why is the UK government charging higher interests rates than a corporate entity like a bank? Has it been turned into a business?

The only reason that the student loans company has an interest rate this high is to make money. Plain and simple. These are not loans designed to enable access to university, to level the playing field to allow those most disadvantaged a leg up. Instead they are a way for poor graduates to become compound interest slaves to government and society.

I could just about accept it, if the rates were lower or in line with other interest rates for important investments paid off over a long time i.e. mortgages. But I just find a rate of 5.2% entirely cynical.

Milton Friedman as Obi Wan Kenobi meets the UK government as Darth Vader. The young Anakin (aka Margaret Thatcher’s government) has learned the dark side of Firedman’s ideas so well that they will apply it to conquer the universe.

Whats the problem with a rate this high? Well, at that rate, because of compound interest the loan will have doubled in 14 years. So, if a student graduates and is not earning enough to begin to pay off the debt, they are soon going to find the amount owing has grown to crushing amounts.

Jason Hikel in less is more, and writers like David Graeber have highlighted the problems with debt capitalism but it strikes me that these loans made to students are not too dissimilar to the loans made to global south countries that tie them into repayments over years that reduce the nation’s ability to fund its own education and other social systems. It is fundamentally exploitative. And disproportionately exploitative of the poor.

Add to this that free market economics will see that the cost of labour is pushed down, and we have an unholy alliance of high student debt with declining relative wages.

I can’t see that causing any problems for society down the line /s.


Think of all that debt accumulating, providing a steady income to the UK government from all of those graduates taking out loans and paying them off over the next thirty year. Supporters claim that the government has promised to forgive the debts if they remain unpaid after 30 years, but I think that is naive.

The government has made drastic changes to teachers pensions, military pensions, as well as to women born in the 1950s, all in the last 10 years, There is nothing in that behaviour that suggests to me that they will keep their word. I do not believe for a minute they will be willing to give up this income stream of debt repayments which is set to become a lucrative industry for the government, they will need it to support growth of the economy. Debt fuels growth.

What do you think?

Resources University

The future-you festival

Originally posted on August 6, 2017 @ 9:00 am

In my first year at my current school I was one of the grade 10 homeroom teachers. At the time, the grade 10’s were the eldest grade, the school having only opened the previous year with all grades up to grade nine.

That year our Head of School organised for some parents to come in on an afternoon to speak to our grade nine and ten students about their various professions.

The session lasted a couple of hours while different parents rotated in front of our small cohort of 18 students to tell them they needed a passion.

The next morning the feedback in homeroom was less than excellent. The major theme that came across was that the kids would have liked some choice about what they saw and who they listened to.

Later that year I was given the chance to set up the university counselling program and part of that required me to organise careers day.

In the first year I was responsible for it (my second year at the school) my main aim was to introduce choice for students.

That year we held it in May and the event ran from after lunch until 7pm. From 2pm until 4pm we had a series of career focussed workshops. These were bookended by a keynote and plenary session. The latter were compulsory for all students, but, during the time in-between, students rotated through workshops that they had previously signed up for.

After the plenary from 4pm to 5pm we held a short university fair, hosting universities from Switzerland plus a few others.

Following this we hosted an author who spoke about her book and work that supports international students making transitions to study at international universities.

In my second year, the academic year just finished, we moved the date back to March. Unfortunately, with the extra classroom hours I was working, I simply didn’t have the time to organise a university fair – the amount of time that goes into simply emailing contacts is extraordinary. However, we did run an evening event again this year. This was organised by my colleague in the schools marketing department and took the form of two guest speakers, with dinner and wine for attendees. Next year we have decided to call this part of the evening “future-you conversations”.

This year I am hoping to expand what we do slightly with morning skills based workshops on top of the afternoon career focussed workshops. These will be run in conjunction with inspiring futures who offer two days of their advisor time to members. We bought membership for next academic year.

Grade 12 will have a session on interview skills to support students who will have interviews as part of their university applications but also as many of them will be interviewing for jobs in the next 12 months.

Grade 11 will have a session on persuasive writing for their personal statement. This will hopefully provide them with some raw material with which to begin their personal statement drafts later in the year.

Grade 10 will have a session on cv writing as they will be looking for work experience this year as they have a work experience week in June.

Grade 9 will use the inspiring futures career investigator.


Going Dutch: An overview of Dutch HE

Originally posted on July 30, 2017 @ 9:00 am

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to take part on a week long tour of Dutch universities. All in all, we visited nine universities across the country from The Hague to Groningen taking in Leiden, Utrecht, Maastricht and Middleburg amongst others.

The week was fairly intense with two campus visits a day, but we (the 14 other guidance counselors and myself) were all very well looked after as we were whisked from one city in the Netherlands to another. This was some of the very best CPD I have done. As the Netherlands is such a small country it is relatively easy to get a good overview of the different options for students who wish to study their degree in English in this country, in a short space of time. To get the same feeling within the US, for example, would probably require many years and many visits for a counselor living internationally.

A Different System and a Different Philosophy

The Dutch Higher Education system differs from the UK and runs on a binary system. There are Research Universities which are primarily concerned with research and teaching of more traditional theoretical subjects; their degrees are three years in length. There are also Universities of Applied Sciences. Their programs are four years in length and are concerned with practically orientated subjects e.g. Physiotherapy, Nursing, Education, Accounting and Finance etc.

Alongside this, the vast majority of courses in both types of institution do not select students based on academic grades. The Dutch government’s philosophy, as it was explained to me, is that any student who completes secondary education successfully should be given a chance to study at university. What this means in practice is that IB students need only pass the IB Diploma with 24 points and they will be admitted. For A level candidates this means passing three A Levels.

A major difference here, however, is that students are selected post-entry. The Dutch operate what is known as “binding study advice”. This means that any student who does not pass their first year is unable to continue with their course.

A relatively small number of courses are selective, however. In the past the Dutch government has specified quotas for certain courses and also selected students for those course centrally (this was termed “numerus fixus”). This year the government has moved away from doing the selection centrally and begun to allow universities to do their own selection.

An International Outlook

One of the first things to become really obvious when visiting campuses and meeting students was the diversity of the places we saw. Many of the English language taught programs were composed of up to 50% non-Dutch students and these non-native students didn’t appear to be coming from one single country of continent. Instead, on paper, there appears to be a real variety to the languages, experiences and cultures that a student can expect to meet and interact with on a Dutch campus. The official statistics we were quoted felt as if they matched the picture that was painted by the students we met and quizzed.

A Range of Options

There is a huge variation in the types of institutions on offer along with the types of courses on offer. Dutch universities are certainly not one size fits all. For such a small country there is an excellent range in the type and style of universities. University College Utrecht is built around the campus model, where all students live and study together for the full four years of study. Groningen and Maastricht offer a university life that is much more integrated into the life of the city that houses them – different faculties and university building spread out amongst the city.

For students looking to escape the big city environment, Leiden and UCR in Middleburg couldn’t be better placed. Both Leiden and Middleburg as towns have widely different vibes, yet both are small, picturesque and undeniably pretty but the courses on offer and living arrangements at the universities over the course of their degrees are different.

One thing that the Netherlands has specialised in, it seems, is the creation of liberal arts and sciences programs. These programs are selective (unlike most Dutch courses – see above) but not numerus fixus and run out of University Colleges, termed the “Honors Colleges” or “University Colleges”. Different University Colleges operate in different ways and they structure their courses differently, but they all allow some degree of flexibility to students who want to tailor make their own degree by studying a range of different modules and subjects. There is also one Natural Sciences program at Maastricht called the Maastricht Science Program; a good choice for students who would be opting for Natural Sciences in the UK.

Education at a price

The cost of studying in the Netherlands is extremely competitive. EU and EEA students can expect to pay at little as €2,004 for tuition fees (Liberal Arts programs are a little more at €4,000) while those students without such a passport will find courses costing anything between €6,000-€16,000. With a cheaper cost of living in general compared to the UK it makes a competitive alternative to studying in the UK.


Britain and North America have always been destinations of choice for international students. Not only do they boast some of the world’s highest ranked universities, but they offer degrees in English. In a globalised world the ability to communicate in English is highly prized skill the world over.

However, the Netherlands, either through choice or coincidence, has positioned itself extremely well to compete for international students and disrupt the UK, US and Canada’s market share.. The universities in the Netherlands are highly regarded and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them become more as time progresses. Typically these students are studying outside their home country. But, more than this, they offer undergraduate study in what is potentially a much more diverse student setting. Studying in English yes, but socialising in Dutch, and, with such variegated cohorts of students, potentially a mix of other languages as well. This on its own will certainly attract certain students. On top of this, the fees are much, much more competitive than either North America or UK and students don’t run the risk of graduating with tens of thousands of euros in debt as they surely do elsewhere. Finally, students know that so long as they are able to successfully finish high school then they are guaranteed a place, which takes the pressure off somewhat when you consider that UK universities will demand a specific point score with, perhaps, very specific conditions in individual subjects. All these factors combine to create a very attractive proposition. I think we can only expect Dutch universities to grow in their popularity.

Resources University

Out with the old…in with the new

Originally posted on July 23, 2017 @ 9:00 am

I started this website and blog in April 2016. Partly, this was to allow me to play around and learn how to set up a website and partly to enable me to share resources for IB Biology that I had created, in the hope that I would find more interaction with other Biology teachers online.

The last academic year has probably been the hardest of my teaching career for a number of reasons. Having a young family with two daughters under the age of two has certainly been a factor but my guidance role very much absorbed my time throughout the year; certainly more than the official 20% time I was contractually obliged to spend on it.

My DP classes have been fairly successful but I just haven’t had the time to devote to my lower grade teaching simply because I was still teaching a new subject – TOK – and becuase I was still setting up the guidance program – working with my first grade 12s in this regard and improving the process for the grade 11s and 10s (2nd year for those cohorts).

As such the website hasn’t developed in the direction I originally planned. I have been finding WordPress a little too clunky with which to build a website dedicated to IB biology. While it is obviously possible to do so I simply haven’t had the time to invest in this project this year between teaching, guidance and family life.

Time constraints considered, I now find that much of my thinking is lately taken up with my guidance program and naturally this means that most of what I want to write about is to do with the issues I face in this area. Writing my blog is primarily a way for me to get my thoughts straight with the added bonus of inviting comment and further discussion from colleagues.

So going forward I plan to:

1) Continue a blog at this website, writing about guidance and education issues as they crop up and time dependent.

2) Stop adding biology teaching resources, plans and ideas to this website, but build a new platform that I can also use for teaching based on google sites.

New google sites was created last year and I first tried using the platform as a wiki for a biology teachers workshop I led. It is super simple to use, although it does have a raft of limitations that I am hoping will gradually be removed over the next few years.

With inspiration from a colleague I began creating workbooks tailored to the IB Biology course for my students in 2012/13. This year I massively overhauled them to bring them in line with the new IB syllabus but also Ron Ritchhardts thinking routines (still a work in progress).

The development of a website feels like a natural extension of this work – the exercises in the workbooks need to be transposed to website form and no doubt this will take time, but I feel that I am getting some clarity on the direction my digital presence needs to take.



Life long learning…creating a guidance program from scratch (part 2)

Originally posted on July 19, 2017 @ 9:00 am

Part one of this two part blog focussed on the major milestones that I encountered in setting up my guidance program in the previous two and half academic years. Part two is devoted to my ideas for next year.

In part one I described three aspects of guidance counseling that I felt were essential for a program to succeed. I welcome comments and discussion as much of what I write I have had to figure out in my own time. I also believe that an effective program covers the following elements:

  1. Careers guidance that comes prior to university guidance; I am currently trying to build this into grade 9 and 10. I believe this is essential in order to encourage meta-cognition and encourage students to reflect seriously on what their strengths are, what they enjoy and what types of work their personality traits would fit.
  2. University Guidance.
    1. Pre Application research, from the end of grade 10 onwards.
    2. Applications, from the end of grade 11 onwards.
    3. Post Application decisions.
    4. Post result fire fighting, if applicable.

Academic year 2017-2018

This coming year I will need to work much more closely with the G12 homeroom teachers to ensure students have time to work on their university applications and also leverage the HODs to ensure that teachers read and pay attention to the policies on predicting grades and writing comments and references. I finally have some time in August inset to take staff through our policies and approach to university applications and their role in the process.

In addition I have (finally!) been granted a budget and was able to plan more effectively for this year. Therefore I am now bringing in career profiling and assessment software for students in grade 10 but will also utilise it with grade 11 next year.

My plans for next year are as follows:

Grade 12

Term one:

  • Grade 12 will take priority in term one as per last year. I have one workshop already booked with them in focus week which will use to finalise UCAS applications and personal statements.
  • Will continue to have timetabled biweekly meetings with each student and more if necessary, less if not.
  • Aim to have UCAS wrapped up by end of September, so that students who are applying to NL can begin applications in October and those applying to North America can begin in October/November.
  • In the absence of core lessons I will utilise one extended homeroom in September, one in October and another in November, to focus on the processes above.
  • Will organise mock admissions testing service exams as well as the actual exams.
  • Will organise interview practice for those going to Oxbridge interviews, but also utilise the future-you festival to provide general interview training for the grade 12s as a group (if they express a desire for it).

Term two:

  • Continue with ad hoc meetings as individuals require it to discuss offers and financing as necessary.

Clearly work with grade 12 goes beyond this time but I am not planning anything formal. That being said the major work load after this point, with this grade, comes during the summer “holiday” when their exam results are released.

Grade 11

Term one:

  • Grade 11 will follow a similar structure to last year: one workshop at the start of the term to onboard them on BridgeU and set goals for that term and another at the end of the term to review progress and set up meeting times from Jan onwards. In addition, this year, they will have a career profile assessment. This will take place in September.
  • During the future-you festival they will have a CV and personal statement writing workshop in addition to the usual workshops we organise.

Term two:

  • Begin one-to-one meetings on a monthly basis to review individual goals and tie in each students CAS and EE into their uni application before beginning work on personal statements.
  • Three whole group sessions on the pros and cons of different university systems (x2) and on writing personal statements (x1).

Term three:

  • Continue one-to-one meetings as necessary and set 1st and 2nd personal statement deadlines.
  • Run three group workshops. One to get registered on UCAS and 2 more to complete as much of the application form as possible and then work on personal statement.

Grade 10:

Term one:

  • Career Assessment profiling and follow up interviews.
  • Future-you festival with workshops on C.V. writing alongside the usual workshops.

Term two:

  • DP subject choices meetings and workshops.
  • Work experience week planning workshop one.

Term three:

  • Work experience week planning workshop two.
  • Work experience week.
  • DP Transition day including work experience week reflection.

Grade 9:

  • Future-you festival including workshop on the career investigator in term two.
  • Grade 10 subject choices in term three.

In conclusion, I welcome any thoughts from colleagues on both sides of the desk to help me continue to improve the services I provide for my students.