Film Competition theme: Access to Higher Education

Claire Lamont provides some ideas to get you thinking

To coincide with the launch of the IF Film Competition, we’ll be hosting a series of blogs looking at the different issues you might want to explore in your films. We’re starting the process this week with higher education.

If you’re at the lower end of our entrants’ age range, chances are you’re either in full-time education or have recently left. And if you’re in full-time education and aged 16+, my guess is that you’re either living with mum and dad – or you’re racking up some serious debt to fund all that thinking(/drinking) time.

Up until 1998, local authorities provided maintenance grants to students in higher education, sometimes covering full maintenance costs throughout a degree. And tuition fees were unheard-of among students, who could expect their local authority to cover the costs of these too.

All of this changed with the introduction of tuition fee payments for students in 1998 and the scrapping of maintenance grants, to be replaced with widespread uptake of student loans. There was a further increase in tuition fees in 2004, and from 2012 most universities will be charging up to £9000 a year in tuition fees – and that’s before we even look at living costs.

This means that for most students coming from medium- or low-income families, the only option for financing their studies is to go into significant amounts of debt before their working lives even begin. Research suggests that for some students this debt could stand at £53,000.

There are two clear things that strike me about the new student finance arrangements. One is the effect of high fees on access to higher education, particularly among young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Added to this is the scrapping of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) – meaning access to post-16 education is now much more difficult for many young people than it was three years ago.

The other possible effect is the normalization of debt in our society. The message going to all young people in tertiary education is that debt is normal – that £50,000 of extra debt is just something you have to learn to live with. This is dangerous in a society already weighed down by personal and national debts.

As a student of the original tuition fees era, I graduated with debt at about a fifth of that amount just over four years ago. My cohort were the lucky ones in so many ways. We not only had much lower fees; we graduated three months before the global financial crisis really hit home and graduate unemployment sky-rocketed.

For a student emerging from university just a year later, the world was a wholly different place. And for those just starting to think about university now, the prospects must look pretty intimidating.

Are these issues affecting you? Are you re-considering university, or have you been affected by the scrapping of EMA? Has your choice of degree changed as a result of the likely burden of debt you’re going to face? We want to see your short films about these and any of the other issues affecting you. Go to