University: A Course in Personal Finance

Recent findings from the Educational Policy Institute indicated that the UK is the third most expensive place in the world to go to university. Combine this with figures from the Prudential, showing that a third of university students have considered abandoning their studies due to the financial strain they have encountered, and it is not surprising that many prospective students are finding the need to seriously think through the merits of going to University.

Whilst it is true that there are currently loans available from both the government and from banks that are designed to see students through their period of studies, for many this will mean emerging into their adult life with mountains of debt. Barclays Bank has stated it believes that once top-up fees are introduced it will cost about £33,000 to put a child through university in England and Wales. At a time when the number of students has greatly increased and the number of high paid graduate careers appears to have diminished, students now have to factor in the cost of living when making the important decision of where to study. In an article by the Scotland On Sunday, the experiences of a university student from Glasgow show that the question of finance already weighs heavy for some students in their choices of where, or even if, they can study. Moving out of the parental home to take full advantage of university life may become less of an option for students as costs increase and financial assistance decreases.

The president of the National Union of Students in Scotland, Melanie Ward, said: "I think most students underestimate the amount of debt they will leave university with, which will be above £13,000."

With graduates needing to earn £22,000 a year in order to pay off anything more than just the interest on their student loans, many people are in their 30s or even 40s before their debt is fully cleared.

Graduates are also finding that they have to make tough decisions as soon as they complete their courses. With banks, building societies, credit card companies, and other private sector lenders requiring the sums borrowed to be repaid. The immediate question of, "Do I build on the knowledge, work experience and internships, that I've had over the last few years and pursue my dream career, or does the chasing of the perfect job I've been working towards for years, have to take second place to getting back into the black?", is now an all too intrusive reality for many.

Some students are finding it so difficult to make ends meet that they are trying to seek alternative means of resolving their debt. Checkmyfile.com has shown that that the number of students declaring themselves bankrupt tripled in 2004. Another method of reducing graduate debt is getting the loans written off through undergraduate bursary programmes by the military or teacher training, in return for agreeing to a placement period following graduation. There are however some potentially serious drawbacks to both types of schemes. These include possible damage to future career prospects or compulsory placement period in a career which the graduate does not want to proceed with long-term.

All is not doom and gloom however, with university authorities and the Students' Union offering advice at college, and after graduation. Public sector organisations like the Citizens Advice Bureau can provide advice if real difficulties occur. Speaking directly to your lenders can often resolve problems. Switching between loans and credit cards is a good way to help reduce interest payments. Financial websites like Moneynet can provide a useful source of information by enabling students and graduates to see which loan or credit card provider is currently offering the best deal and 0% introductory rate.

It seems budgeting and hard decisions are required by all potential students these days, with a degree in personal finance a desirable pre-requisite before starting actual studies.

Richard works in Edinburgh for a media company, occasionally writing for the personal finance blog Cashzilla, and drinking too much coffee.

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