As a petition against government plans around student loans reaches 100,000, a Coleraine teacher has called for a change to an ‘elitist mindset’ regarding universities.
“Northern Ireland must shake off the mindset that a university degree always trumps a vocational qualification if local students are to escape ‘crippling’ debt,” said Jacquie Reid from the town, a former teacher at Millburn Primary and Deputy General Secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union.
She was speaking as a petition against government plans to freeze the salary threshold at which graduates must start paying back their student loans tops100,000 signatures (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/131167). This means the issue will now be considered for debate in Parliament.
“Recent figures have also revealed that young people graduating from English universities face the highest student loan debt in the English-speaking world, with the average student debt at £44,000 and some of the poorest graduates leaving with debts over £50,000 debt,” she said.
“With a situation like this we need to look at exactly what degrees are offering and at what the alternatives might be.”
The figures from social mobility charity the Sutton Trust - Degrees Of Debt - also highlights the growing complexity in arrangements in the UK nations. Among other suggestions, it calls for better co-ordination between higher education ministers from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to rationalise student funding policies across the UK.
“These crippling debt levels are by far the highest in the English-speaking world - more than double the average debt levels at American universities even though students there study for four as opposed to three years,” continued Ms Reid.
“They undoubtedly impact on graduates’ lives later on - the ability to afford a mortgage, the timing of having children and other major life decisions. The cost of going to university has become so expensive that more young people must seriously consider whether it’s the best decision for them and if a higher level apprenticeship, even to degree level, might not suit them better.
“By choosing this route, they can earn while they learn, escape huge debts and develop skills they can use in the workplace. We need more good apprenticeships to offer genuine alternatives to university degrees – but we also need society to realise and credit young people who decide to take this route. We need a change in an elitist mindset.
“We need to get away from the out-dated notion that A-levels and academic rather than vocational pursuits are the gold-star achievement in education. We need to look at other economies which are now world leaders to see that this is where they are and to embrace that sea change in our own culture.”