Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Education Blues

Listening to UK Prime Minister David Cameron addressing Al Azhar University students in Jakarta a while back, and talking to him afterwards about opportunities for Indonesian students to study in the UK given the increasing costs of education, make me reflect upon the times when I too was a student in England, many years ago.  It was a different world then, of course.  And one that we would probably never see again.  Today, from what I understand, university enrollment in the UK has gone down significantly, partly because of rising tuition fees even for home students, making education an expensive choice rather than a right.

Here in Indonesia too, putting kids through school these days is a costly affair and a nightmare even for middle class parents with more than modest means.  And that for an investment that does not guarantee good employment prospects or employability at the end of it.

For myself, I could not remember my parents ever having to spend a penny for my schooling and university education.  My elementary school was at a university campus in Bandung when tuition fees were a small sum that even I was entrusted to bring to school along with its payment docket in a little plastic bag to give to my teacher.

Junior and senior high school was at a local school for girls in north London, England. My parents, both working at a college at the University of London at the time, were tax payers.  My father particularly, paid around 40% in tax.  State schools for me were free and compulsory.  I remember my father telling me that he could in theory be jailed if I didn't go to school by the time school year began in September.

I didn't need him to scare the wits out of me, however.  I was quite happy to don my school uniform (that my mother bought for a few pennies from a school jumble sale because she thought I would grow out of it soon and hence didn't want to spend good money on new ones) and walk the mile long journey from home to school twice a day everyday for the next few years.  My school friends who lived beyond walking distance were given free bus passes by the school.
The only thing we had to pay for was for school dinners, which being heavily subsidized (and thus horrible), hardly made a dent in the weekly child benefit my mother received for having a school-aged child.  This weekly benefit (not a paltry amount at that) I promptly claimed as my pocket money, seeing my mother was working anyway.  And this arrangement worked well, as this freed my parents from having to give me any money of their own, and me from having to nag at them to buy me things.  Thus, at the age of eleven, I was already in charge of my own finances.

And in those days, there really weren't that many things to buy.  Most things I needed for school were free.  The text books, the exercise books, sporting equipments and even the paints and coloured pencils for my art class were provided for. Apart from my weekly comic, magazine and my daily ration of crisps and chocolate bars, life was actually quite cheap.  There certainly weren't any of those expensive electronic gadgets and computer games that no self-respecting five year old would go without nowadays.  And once I was old enough to earn extra money from baby sitting and doing Saturday  and Summer jobs, I was practically in clover.

When it came to going to university, the headache came from which universities to choose from and not how expensive they were.  As for tuition fees, I had never heard anything of the sort. Once you were accepted, money was no object. The local council paid for your tuition.  The word then was grant.  Which was how much money the council would give you so you could lead the life of a student (which would go towards accommodation and drinks at the student bars.) And the amount of grant you received depended on your parents' earnings. The bigger the earnings, the smaller the grant.  My sister, for example, only got a minimum grant, as her university was in London and she lived at home with both our parents working.

I had no plans to live at home, so I chose a university outside of London and got a grant just above the minimum. When my parents left England for good not long after I left home, I wrote a letter to the council telling them of my changing circumstances:  that my parents no longer worked (at least not in England) and I was bereft of their support. The council responded by giving me a maximum grant for the rest of my university years, which amounted to a tidy sum every academic term.  I think my parents were grateful for not having to worry about my financial situation one bit.  Something that is an impossibility for today's parents with children who are not yet able to earn their own living.

Now, when you're young, the main expenses other than lodging that could burn a hole in your pocket are clothes and going out.  Living outside London meant I could keep my accommodation and transportation costs to a minimal.  Fashion was a must to be sure, but I found an effective way of keeping abreast a la mode, by shopping at second hand clothes stores and working in clothing stores during the Winter and Summer holidays.  Not only did I make money, but I managed to get all my clothes at buyer's discount.  And if I didn't get a job, I could always apply for supplementary benefit to tide me over until my next grant check came in, if I was really hard up.  And my parents never needed to be the wiser about my financial health.

I guess I was lucky then.  I was brought up at the time and place when good education was a right, and not a privilege of only those who could afford it.

(Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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