Something Shylockian

Sometimes in this era of commercialised education, in this era when many institutions sell university degrees over the counter to those willing to pay, we forget how difficult it can be for some students.

THIS is about a 24-year-old girl who wanted to do a master’s in England with all her heart.

Late in the summer of 2005 she boarded a bus from a town on the edge of Russia, clutching a first-class undergraduate degree, £110 in borrowings, and a handful of English words she had picked up at school. Three days later she arrived in Bournemouth.

Over the next year she got herself a waitressing job and saved pennies. She learnt English.

Last October she visited the Bournemouth University main campus for an open day. Staff there enthusiastically tried to sell her postgraduate enrolments, pointing out the wonderful opportunities BU offered.

She knew which MA she wanted, she told them. But she wouldn’t have the whole course fee — as she was foreign, it was double what a European Union student paid, £8,000 — by February. Could she pay half the fees then and the rest six months later?

Oh yes, she was told. BU was always glad to help.

This meant she had to raise nearly £3,000 in the next four months somehow, but she went home happy. She was going to the university finally.

She renegotiated a deal for her matchbox accommodation. Got herself a tougher but better-paying job. Budgeted brutally. Begged extra shifts and killed herself working in the holidays. Borrowed. She also managed to pass the IELTS.

In December she got an unconditional offer from the university. By mid-January she had the money. She got together her certificates and application and went to enroll — and was told she would need to pay the rest of her fees not six months into the course, but a month later.

Sorry, they said. And now that you mention you don’t have enough money, we are not sure we can offer you this seat. We need to think about it.

She spent four days agonising as they thought. Then she was called for a second interview.

She said she had been assured on two separate occasions — explicitly — that she could pay her second half of the fees after summer. She pointed out the first installment was a fortune to her — enough to buy a small house back home — and she could not afford to lose it, so she would definitely, definitely not run away.

I earn £620 a month, she said, and I live on £300, so I save £320. That and the extra money I earn during the summer holidays will add up. Please don’t withdraw the offer.

Can’t wait six months, they said. But maybe we can treat you as a special case. You pay the first £4,000 now, then make monthly payments towards the other half. You say you save £320? Excellent, if you sign an undertaking to pay that every month till October, and £1,400 in August — you said you would earn more in the holidays, didn’t you, and you might be able to borrow some money? — then we can let you enroll. We don’t normally do this for anyone, mind.

She signed on the dotted line.

That week she put in an application for an international student scholarship. By the time her course started, she got a response: she had been awarded £1,000 in fee-waiver.

That was a big relief. And now that her ‘debt’ was reduced, perhaps they would adjust her monthly payments proportionately? She wrote in with a request: £50 less — £270 per month instead of £320 — would make all the difference to her, she said, and the university would still get its money by October as agreed.

Sorry, they said. Now that your situation has improved, we would like you to finish paying early. The original installment had stretched us well beyond what’s acceptable, so we will stick to it.

Two months have passed, with two touch-and-go payments. In the meantime, her first piece of course work — in a language alien to her just two years ago — was graded a first class and presented to her peers as a model essay. She’s pleased, she said, but very tense when it rains and her shifts are cancelled (she works at a restaurant on the beach) and customers leave miserly tips. What if she doesn’t make enough to cover payment? They were about to send her away once because she didn’t have the full amount.

It’s more worrying now than ever before, she said. When I came here, I didn’t have anything to lose. Now I do.

Sometimes in this era of commercialised education, in this era when many institutions sell university degrees over the counter to those willing to pay, we forget how difficult it can be for someone like this girl.

We forget there’s something shylockian about squeezing the last drop of blood out of someone.



1 Comment

  1. Indira Larrow · May 5, 2011

    It is real pleasure to read you blog!

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