Before anyone gets seriously upset/offended by what I’m gonna disclose in this post, I just wanna say that this is 100% my honest experience.
We all hear the stats that progression from a w/c background into higher education is better than ever. We hear about the high maintenance loans, the bursaries, the additional help, and from afar it seems that your background does not matter at university. In fact, we are even told this. We are told that we can do anything. We can be that first generation, we can break out of our class mould, we can be the change. And, to some extent, that is true.
However, we are not told the complete truth, and that is what I would like to discuss (from my own personal experience) in this post. I am going to split this into three main parts to make it easier to navigate: Financial Difference, Educational Difference and Mental Strain.
I just want to start this by saying, student loans in the UK are allover the place at the moment. When I first started looking at going to university, bursaries were still a thing, but they were scrapped before I started my first year so I am the first generation to go through this incredibly confusing time that is student money management. I don’t like the current loan system. Don’t get me wrong, the repayment part is great. But, the amount that students with a mid-range income receive is not, and I know from friends how difficult that can be. That being said, though, I am not from a mid-range income, so that is not the experience that I am gonna be speaking from in this post. I am gonna be speaking from the POV of someone who is entitled to a full student loan, just like me.
Just in case you don’t know how the loan system works in the UK (do any of us, really?), it’s calculated on your household income. So if your parents/whoever you live with earn X per year, you get X per year in student loan. This assumes that, if your parents earn more, they are able to help you out with funding more. This doesn’t always work (to be honest, it doesn’t work at all for most people), and proving that you’re estranged from parents is incredibly difficult but, again, not my experience.
Note this is based on household income, not parental income combined. Therefore, as I live with my mum who is a single parent with three children (one of whom was >1 when I started university), the income is pretty low. Now, I don’t talk about my mum’s income on here because A) it’s pretty personal and B) why would I? Would be a bit weird to say the least. But just know that it aint a lot, we are not rich, I am not from a privileged background, and the progression rate to university for my town is one of the lowest in the country.
I feel like I had to get through that bit very matter-of-factually but that is because there is something that I am here to talk about, and everyone else’s experience isn’t that. However, I did wanna include it because I know that this system is rubbish for so many people and that I am not the only one that has struggled because of it. On the flip side, though, I went to university with some people who didn’t even have a tuition fee loan and are graduating completely debt free because their parents paid for everything. I think that everyone should just be able to loan what they need seen as it is a loan, to be honest, but let’s not get into economic politics.
Let’s delve into my actual experience.
My Financial Experience
So, I get the full student maintenance loan.
And, I have done for my entire three years at university.
I also get a thousand pound bursary from my university every year which is a nice added bonus.
And I have worked at least two jobs (sometimes three, sometimes four) throughout my degree.
And I am graduating in my overdraft.
This is not ever a position that I wanted to be in. In terms of debt, it is certainly not a rarity where I am from, and it is something that I have feared my whole life. Now, I know that student debt is more of a different debt in that it is a tax, but it still absolutely terrifies me to my core. And then there is the overdraft debt. It is not a lot, and I made sure that I could pay it back in a few months, sometimes living on a food shop of less than £5 a week.
And I have lived with so many people all in completely different financial situations. And I tried really hard not to be jealous of the ones that were more fortunate than myself, I was not brought up to be jealous. But, sometimes, when I would come home from a long day at work with my £5 food shop, try and make something edible and nutritious, and see my housemate’s £100 food shop arrive, it would sting a little bit. And, most of the time, the sting wouldn’t come from them having more than me, it would come from my own embarrassment that I was having to live this way. And it was really rubbish because I blamed myself.
I couldn’t help but think how much easier my life would be without 2/3/4 jobs. At one point in my third year, I was working 4 jobs as well as completing my degree assignments on time and, to this day, I still don’t know how. I don’t know where the motivation or energy or drive came from, but I do know how exhausted I felt as soon as I laid my pen down after my last exam. And I have been exhausted every day since, almost a month later.
I was not jealous of what other people had, or where other people came from, I was jealous of their freedom in a weird way. I was jealous that they didn’t have to have a job, didn’t have to try and balance everything with their degree, and didn’t have the stress of their phone bill payment being declined. I knew that it wasn’t their fault, we were born into completely different backgrounds after all and that is not anyone’s fault. And I felt a little left out every time that I had to say no to a plan because of work, or no to a coffee because of funds, or yes to a night in but no to the deliveroo.
I mostly felt embarrassed because I felt as though I was working hard, but was still behind. All the jobs I had took up time that I could have spent on my degree or on my friendships and, although I loved my jobs, I did feel like I was spread thinly and not really managing to succeed at anything. I felt like everything was just another thing for me to do, and I did feel a financial strain.
And I know that I was lucky in the sense that I did have the full maintenance loan. However, the reason that I had the full maintenance loan is simply and utterly because I did not have the financial security of most. I was not in a position where I could borrow money from my parents, (although I am sure they would have sacrificed things for me to be able to, I didn’t ask because I knew the reality of their financial positions too). It felt like a lonely, isolating time because I had less time to see my friends because I needed to work, and I felt too embarrassed to actually speak about how much I was financially struggling.
I should have probably been more realistic about this before I started university, but I had genuinely absolutely no idea that I would go to university and find myself educationally disadvantaged.
See, I thought that, as we had needed the same grades to get there, we would be at the same point. And, oh boy, was I wrong.
I quickly realised that I had been taught to pass my exams, and many of the people in my new lecture theatres and seminar rooms had been taught a lot more.
So, I spent the first year of university massively massively playing catch up. There were countless texts, critical sources and theories that seemed common knowledge to everyone else, that I had never even heard of. It was overwhelming, and I just didn’t expect it.
I remember one of the girls in my seminar who had been to a private school telling me about their class sizes, and their lesson plans. She told me that they would cover one of our two hour lessons in half an hour because they essentially had one-to-one teaching, and it dawned on me how different my educational experience had been.
I knew deep down that my school was one of the worst in the country. It had some of the worst progression rates, GCSE results, and a level results, but that had never seemed a problem to me. I was ambitious and dedicated and I worked hard and still got relatively good results, and I had always been determined to never let my background hold me back.
But now I had been dropped into a new environment, with people from a completely different background to mine, and I was forced to face up to the reality that I was a little bit behind. And so, I spent a lot of time in the library, preparing and re-preparing and reading and trying really hard to get up to scratch.
And that was fine, and I tried to lessen the impact of it the best that I could and I managed pretty well and the tutors were helpful and, so, it is something that I only really felt the impact of in the first year. But it was something that came as a massive culture shock because absolutely no one had warned me that I was going to experience it. I think I would have rather had been prepared. I would have rather had spent my summer catching up and gone into the first year more relaxed and ready. But, alas, in the words of 2019 Love Island it is what it is.
And so, these differences did put a mental strain on my university experience. There were times that I felt like I simply didn’t belong there; that I felt like I had simply been accepted to fill a quota. I felt like I wasn’t good enough, and this heightened with how tired I was from the library sessions and the jobs.
And I do not want pity for that, I didn’t ever want pity, it is simply that I felt like why am I having to work so hard? Why is everyone else enjoying themselves? And that impacted my university experience massively because I blamed myself and felt like I just wasn’t as good as everyone else. And the mentality of that is really exhausting, and is one of the reasons that I almost dropped out (more than once).
Now that we have got to the end of this monster of a blog post, I just wanted to say that I hope that this has not come across as me moaning in any way. I did not write this post because I wanted people to pity me, I wrote it for those that are exactly like me. Trust me, I know how lucky and fortunate I am to have educational opportunity, especially considering that this is something that the previous generations of my family have not been fortunate enough to have themselves.
And I also recognise that class is just one of the many issues that different types of students face when going to university. I know that I am more privileged than others, and I am certainly appreciative of this.
But I wanted to write this post for all of the working class people like me that experienced a severe culture shock when they went to university. It is okay, you are not alone, and you will get there. You may just have to work a little harder to catch-up.
Like this post? Why not read I almost dropped out of university (more than once).