‘I want the freedom to get into as much debt as I want’, was not a sentence I ever would have imagined myself saying but I did, just a few months ago to a friend while nursing a Starbuck’s and a troubled mind. Rewind that conversation by ten minutes, and you have me explaining the differences between myself and my friend and why (much to his shock) postgraduate study wasn’t within my reach this year.

We both attended John Moores University

We both studied Zoology and got 2.1s

We both wanted to do a Masters, but only one of us will be returning to university this year.

Why? Because he is from England and I am from Northern Ireland.

As it stands, an individual from England has access to £10,609, £10,280 if you are from Wales and £10,000 if you are from Scotland. Students from Northern Ireland can expect £5,500 if they wish to study at postgraduate level.

For those who want to remain in Northern Ireland this will cover their tuition fees as they are reduced for ‘home’ students. But unlike students from the rest of the UK, our loan will be spent entirely on tuition fees; meaning living costs are entirely up to the individual. Like many others who wish to leave home to study at a postgraduate level, this means we are likely to be over £3000 pounds short for our tuition fees. Pair that with the average cost of living, the price of studying at postgraduate level is becoming more and more unattainable to many students.

With a devolved government and the threat of a hard-border post-Brexit looming, it’s understandable that students such as myself might be feeling a bit disheartened. Graduate jobs are few and far between, meaning it is now more critical than ever for individuals on the beginning of their career path to go the extra mile and gain more qualifications. It is just not enough to meet the set criteria for a job anymore — you must go above and beyond.

The difference in the money available to Northern Irish students does not end at a lower payment. There are also differences in the repayment of these debts, with students from Northern Ireland not only having a shorter loan term than English and Welsh students, but also a lower percentage of earnings being taken for repayments. The current repayment plan for students of 17/18 means that students from Northern Ireland will have their undergraduate and postgraduate loan fees grouped together, and will have monthly repayments of 9 per cent from any earnings above £17,775. This is lower than the 15 per cent of earnings above the threshold of £21,000 for English and Welsh students who will also pay for postgraduate and undergraduate loans concurrently.

So, whilst it’s clear that there are both costs and benefits in the differences between regions, these differences highlight the inequality between students who are using the same resources.

There is considerable debate over the price of education as unfortunately, the problems appear long before postgraduate study. However, we do need to ask the following as a nation: do we want to carve a society that is disadvantaging the upcoming generation by, arguably, limiting access to education?

Education is a privilege, but it should not be a privilege for the wealthy.

Should we consider what kind of work ethic we are encouraging by pricing a university degree at a sum so high it is utterly unrealistic to save enough money to pay it off without signing up to years of debt?

If you are a student from Northern Ireland currently working towards funding postgraduate study, I urge you to write to your local MP and express your concerns. To elicit change, we must make our voices heard.

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