Written by Kit Finnie

In The News

Degree of doubt

Putting a financial value on education skewers one’s approach to learning, as Kit Finnie is discovering.

student wearing mortar board
Once, in my first year of university, I attended a lecture that lasted around 30 minutes. According to our timetable, it should have lasted an hour. Every lecture in every module should last an hour. We were unusually quiet when we left the hall, looking sideways at each other and at our sporadic notes, wondering what to do with ourselves.

As we sat in Caffè Nero, mouthily tearing apart the professor’s substandard practice, a mathematically inclined person let us all know that, individually, we had paid £56.25 for the privilege of half an hour’s worth of learning – a figure arrived at by dividing the yearly £9,000 fee by the number of hours of contact time we had per module. This was not, we all agreed, what we should be paying for. We brooded over our hot chocolate and wondered how we would go about getting a part-time job in this new and strange town.

Maybe we were snotty teenagers throwing our very expensive toy out of the pram. Maybe it’s stupid to try to divide three years’ worth of growing and learning into arbitrary units. But I’d be lying if I claimed I never think about that half-hour lecture, or a seminar where one prick dominated the discussion, or the time when a lecturer stood up panicky students because he ‘forgot’ about his office hours.

Mine was the first year of students to pay £9,000 per year, triple that of our friends in the year above. Because of this, we were constantly and acutely conscious of the perceived value of every scrap we got from our teachers. For better or worse, I saw my degree as a system of monetary exchange. I was the customer, and my lecturers were working for me.

I know that this is a crass way to look at education. Learning is a life-giving, wonderful, elusive thing. Listening to incredibly intelligent, generous people tell me things, sitting in libraries reading books at 2am, exposing myself to ideas I loathed and loved – these were all glorious ways to spend three years. Even the semi-paralysing panic of opening essay results with my friends came with an incredible sense of camaraderie that I honestly don’t think I will ever feel again.

“Deciding to carry on with academia feels like jumping into the dark. I have barely any idea of what it will mean to carry around a debt of over £80,000 wherever I go the rest of my life.”

Yet even at the best of times, I still had a sinking suspicion that it just wasn’t worth it. More than once, I rang my mum and announced that I was going to drop out. But in the end, I felt like I was trapped. If I wanted to have this qualification, and this experience, I had to resign myself to a lifetime of debt. Under this shadow, I learned to see my degree as something I was paying for, rather than working towards. It was a way of wrenching back something like control from a system that made me feel demoralised and powerless.

A few weeks ago, I found out that I’d got into Oxford to do a Masters. It’s a weird feeling. I feel incredibly lucky – that they fell for my wanky personal statement, that my parents are able and willing to bear the financial burden, that my dad will sit for hours in Manchester cafes drawing geometric representations of student debt on napkins while I laugh hysterically into the mocha he also bought me.

But once the initial feeling of wonder and glee wore off, my general attitude when I tell people my plans for October is more like confession than pride. I feel so embarrassed at my audacity. How dare I do a self-indulgent Masters when so many people can’t? How dare I focus my energy (not to mention the money) on a subject that literally won’t benefit humanity in any tangible way? And how dare I write about feeling sorry for myself when I’m basically the luckiest person I know?

Deciding to carry on with academia feels like jumping into the dark. I have barely any idea of what it will mean to carry around a debt of over £80,000 wherever I go the rest of my life. But I have a feeling it will be far more costly to have the chance to do this degree and not do it.

In a strange way, I’m having to reverse the lesson I taught myself as an undergrad. At one point, the idea that I was paying for my learning gave me power. I felt like I was fighting for my rights as a consumer, and I didn’t want to accept anything less than the best. But now, all I want is to feel like I’m not a self-indulgent slug living off other people’s goodwill. I have to relearn what I’ve been resisting for the last three years – that education is always worth it, and value is about more than money.


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Written by Kit Finnie

Kit Finnie is based in North London. When she's not writing poems and stories, she likes to spend time being her own worst enemy. Proof here: @KitFinnie She blogs at kitfinnie.wordpress.com