Is running up a student debt such a bad thing? The abolition of the basic grant means future students will have debts about twice as high (at 30,000 euros) as those of current students. With interest charges as well. Politicians sugar-coat it by calling it a 'social loan system' because the monthly repayments are based on your income and there is the possibility of cancellation after 20 years, but it is still a lot of money. Is student debt really as easy to bear as they claim? Four Wageningen alumni give their personal account of dealing with student debt in practice.
Degree: BSc in Organic Agriculture, MSc in Applied Communication Science, 2002-2010
Extracurricular activities: Stel study association committee, prospective student days, degree thesis committee
Work: Sector association for dietary supplements
Debt: 'I'd rather not say'
Repayments: €300 per month
'Ishare a quaint fisherman's cottage in Scheveningen with my boyfriend. We're renting through the private sector so it's not cheap. We went to a property fair yesterday because we'd like to get on the property ladder but that's just not possible. He has a debt as well, less than mine, but they give that a lot of weight in mortgage calculations. They assume monthly repayments of 1.5 per cent of your debt when determining your mortgage. Which is unfair but those are the rules at the moment.
My overheads have shot up since I started working. My parents used to pay my health insurance when I was at university; now I pay that myself. I still have a car but I'll probably have to get rid of it. I get a public transport pass from my employer. I haven't become any better off since I got my degree. I have just as much to spend every month. In my previous job I earned 500 euros a month more; the drop in salary took a bit of getting used to. But I'm not really worried - I reckon Wageningen students always land on their feet. I do see the debt as a burden but it's not unbearable.
I'm kicking myself for not spending every Saturday behind the bar in a pub to get some extra cash during my degree. I always treated the weekend as a proper weekend, time to relax. But when I look back now I wonder why I needed relax! The whole week was really one long weekend. That's the thing with loans; it's so easy to borrow money but the consequences are not so nice. If you have a part-time job at university, you appreciate the value of money more. Then you automatically live more frugally.
I did spend a long time in higher education. It took me a while to learn how to study. I started in vocational secondary education, went to an applied sciences university and ended up at Wageningen University. To begin with, I got a lot of poor marks and I was always getting behind. I only gradually got up steam. But I'm not complaining. I had a great time. I wouldn't have wanted to miss my stay in Italy, where I did an internship at the gastronomic university. And all that networking and committee work has been very useful and valuable for my current job.'
‘I get unemploy-ment benefit of 800 euros a month, and 180 euros of that goes to DUO.’
Degree: Forest and Nature Management, 2001-2007
Extracurricular activities: WSKOV committee
Repayments: Currently €180 per month
'I had really bad luck during my degree: Pfeiffer's disease, RSI and two concussions. That led to me getting behind and left me with three times as much debt as I would have had otherwise. My student debt does feel like a big burden and I want to get rid of it as soon as possible. Everything left over goes on paying it off. I've repaid nearly 10,000 euros since 2009. It was going really well at about 300 euros a month, but it's less now.
I had difficulty finding a job at first with my degree. I was able to join Mars working in the lab. Not really my thing but I was pleased with the work. Then I found a really nice job in my discipline but they didn't renew my contract because of the cutbacks. Both my employer and I thought it was a pity, but there you go - that's the crisis for you.
In January I had a baby girl and I've been stuck at home since my maternity leave. It's annoying but at least I'm not the only one. Any job vacancy gets hundreds of responses so it's difficult to find something. I get unemployment benefit of 800 euros a month, and 180 euros of that goes on repayments. I would be allowed to pay less if I told DUO (the Education Executive Agency) about the drop in income but I haven't done that on purpose because I want to pay it off while I still can. I'm not married so my boyfriend and I have separate incomes. He's now on invalidity benefit so that's another thing we have to cope with. Otherwise I'd have to make repayments on the basis of our joint income.
There are definitely things I don't do because of my debt. We'd like to emigrate to a different country that's less crowded but you need a financial buffer to do that. I've also considered starting my own business but I don't dare because of my debt. I'd really like a guaranteed income. I'm less likely to take a big step as long as I've got that debt. It all sounds pretty dramatic but I've got a good life. I'm delighted with our daughter, for instance. And we plan to get married next year.'
‘You should be pleased you are allowed and able to go to university. It’s an investment that will be well worth it in the future.’
Degree: Livestock Farming, 1998-2005
Extracurricular activities: Livestock Farming study association committee, KSV debating society, De Bongerd committees
Work: Own company, advising on grants
Repayments: €100 per month
'I'm pleased I did all my extracurricular activities as they are a real plus point. A law student from Groningen is just one among many, but Wageningen students are unique because they can choose so many individual courses. So your degree is important and on top of that I had my committee work. That really helped me stand out from the crowd when I was applying for jobs. I'm pleased I put time into that, which means the loan is more than worth it
I have been making repayments since January 2008, about 100 euros a month. And if I can't keep that up, I can put the loan on hold for a couple of years. I don't notice it because it's done by a standing order. Well, this interview has reminded me about it...
It hasn't had any direct effect on the decisions I have taken in my life. I did review my finances when I started up my own business. I noticed then that I had learned how to manage my finances properly even during my degree. I always made sure I could still buy a beer in the pub on the 19th of the month.
The alternative to a student debt is not to go to university at all. And where do you end up then? I think a degree is still the better option. It's one of the most valuable investments you can make. The government still makes a major contribution to your university education. It's better to take out a loan for your degree than for a car. I wouldn't mind even if my debt was twice as high.
‘I have four children so you always need money but I can’t recall ever having to do without something.’
Wim van Wissen
Degree: Biology. BSc at VU University Amsterdam and MSc at Wageningen, 1975-1980
Work: Human Resources, Wageningen UR
Debt: 45,000 guilders/20,400 euros
Repayments: 350 guilders/158 euros per month
'Imarried early and my wife was working then, which meant I got a smaller grant and had to take out a loan. I thought it was quite unfair because unmarried couples didn't have that problem. As a result I had a big loan but I never found that a problem. I got the money and I enjoyed the benefits. You can't then complain about having to make repayments.
In 1981 I got my first job, which took us abroad. When we came back from Jordan in 1985, the Netherlands was in a deep crisis with unemployment at more than 10 per cent. There was nothing at all for biologists. In the end I retrained in IT and went to work for Wageningen UR.
The repayments were not a problem. I didn't have to pay anything off in the first few years. After that they did a means test and the repayment amount was based on that. The monthly repayments became proportionately smaller once I started to earn more. I have four children so you always need money but I can't recall ever having to do without something.
The big difference with today's students is that I didn't have to pay interest. That makes a huge difference because now interest starts to accumulate from day one so you have to pay back a lot more. I made my final repayment in June 2000. I had to look that up because I couldn't remember the occasion. No, I didn't celebrate.'