Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Adulthood, Debt and Family Responsibility.

The BBC Magazine today discussed different social attitudes towards inheritance and it brought to mind the not unrelated issue of parental responsibility for adult children. When I went to University at 17, it was the year after the abolishment of the student grant, the first year of means-tested loans and the year before bursaries were established for children from poor backgrounds. I was ridiculously independent, having worked at since I was fourteen and saved up a reasonable about of money. I did not receive pocket money, but used my own money to make any purchases that I needed. My parents, at that time, were not particularly wealthy, and so when I applied for a student loan, I received the full loan and my parents were not expected to supplement it. Meaning the debt was all mine. My parents supported me by providing free accommodation and food, but I paid for all my university expenses, including books, lunch and the travel costs of a two hour commute by public transport (each way!). At eighteen, I bought my own flat, nearer university, using the money I had saved as a deposit, mainly because I couldn’t keep up with working 30 hours a week, four hours commuting and university. Later that year (when I was nineteen) I got married (my husband was also a student and from a similar background, so his debt was all his too!!) meaning that I was classified as independent by the student loans company (SLC), and so from that point my parents were no longer expected to contribute to my upkeep.

I had been raised with a strong work ethic and a belief that adults did not look to their parents for financial help. That my parents had to be ‘means-tested’ at all really bugged me. If I wanted to take out loans, why was that my parents’ responsibility? Going to University was my decision, not theirs. When my younger siblings went to university, my parents were earning more and so deemed rich enough to contribute. What this meant in practice is that the SLC takes the amount of loan that you are entitled to and deduct the amount your parents are meant to pay and then give you the balance. You are responsible for asking your parents for the money or taking them to court if they won’t pay. Now this is a LOAN, we are talking about, not a grant. It is not like the state is paying for this; it is just how much debt they will allow you to take out. For children, who consider themselves adults, this can be a very difficult thing to do. Especially as your parents are considered liable to means-testing until your 26!

What’s my point? I think that there is a disconnect between the social values of certain social groups and what is expected by the government and I think that this problem is affected by nationality. Adulthood in Scotland comes at sixteen. At that age, we can leave school, work, get married, sign contracts, and make decisions about our future (although we can’t smoke, drink, or drive). In England, where the legislation on student loans was passed, although people can leave school at sixteen, they are not adults and cannot get married without parental consent or sign contracts. Furthermore, whereas in England, the university system is designed for people aged over eighteen (and it used to be the case that some universities had age restrictions, although this may have changed in light of recent legislation), in Scotland, while many people now wait until they are eighteen by taking a ‘sixth year’ at school, universities are designed for students coming from Higher, at age 17. I think that these social differences create considerable cultural differences about what we expect from young adults and affects perceptions of parental responsibility.

I think that cultural difference is more pronounced amongst certain social groups, especially the working class and lower middle class, where money and success is hard earned and not inherited. Children are taught, both verbally and by example, that financial independence is part of being an adult and we are uncomfortable with the ‘child’ status that results from us taking money from our parents (possibly more so when we are just becoming adults than later in life where our adulthood is established in other ways). To be honest, I think that we are more comfortable asking the state to support us than our parents. I think that the government and the SLC should take those cultural differences into account before bringing in systems that are resented, and as a result, unworkable by parts of the population.

There are also real drawbacks to this way of working. First, what do students whose parents won’t pay do? They either have to sue them (you know with the free cash that students have lying around and all the related tensions and family wars that may result) or become declared independent adults, which involves getting the social work department to declare you independent (which is difficult if you have never been in care); proving that you have been economically independent for three years; or get married. All of the latter options can be time-consuming to evidence and, in the meanwhile, no loan. Second, it can lead to parents controlling their children’s behaviour when they are meant to be adults making decisions about their future. What good is a degree that you didn’t really want in the first place? I think this is especially problematic amongst social groups that associate adulthood with financial independence as logically if this is the case, then if they are paying for it they should have a say. Finally, it leads for odd situations where I am married so am independent but my sister lives with her boyfriend in their own flat but is still dependent. Where is the consistency?

Different understandings of adulthood and responsibility do not only effect student loan awards, but have bearing on a lot of ‘hot potato’ issues of the moment, including discussions of teenage pregnancy, compulsory schooling until age 18, raising the age of smoking, apprenticeships for all, and how we view young people and their place in the world. For legislation to work, it has to be meaningful to all social groups and reflect the different national attitudes across the UK.

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