I'm starting out my career already in more than 30 grand of debt - it's a vicious cycle for students today

"A lot of students are choosing whether to eat or put the heating on."
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Graduating university should be a celebratory time in a young adult’s life. It’s the culmination of years of hard work and the springboard for the next milestones, like landing a dream job and buying your first home. 

But this is increasingly not the case. Today the average student leaves university with around £45,000 of debt – a daunting prospect regardless of when or how much you pay back. And with the average age of first-time buyers in the UK now 34, most will probably have to wait more than a decade before getting on the property ladder.

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For many, financial worries begin at university. Increasing rent and energy costs have taken their toll on students too, some of whom have to work part or full-time alongside studies to get by. 

As part of Project Peter Pan, we spoke to one Manchester student preparing to enter the workforce about the worries and concerns young people have about money and how they feel about the future. 

“A bit of independence without paying a stupid amount”

Jess Rothwell, 21, from Bury, will be graduating from the School of Journalism in Manchester in May. For the last three years, she has lived with her boyfriend and his parents in Bolton. It was not a conscious money-saving decision at the time –  it was lockdown and the only way they could stay together during the pandemic – but that changed when the time came to look at university accommodation.

Jess Rothwell, from Bury, is currently studying in Manchester Jess Rothwell, from Bury, is currently studying in Manchester
Jess Rothwell, from Bury, is currently studying in Manchester

Her university does not offer halls so her only option was to look at private accommodation. In Fallowfield, where many Manchester students choose to live, the average rent per week per person is around £155, according to Manchester Student Homes. The cost of private student halls in the city centre can be much higher. Student accommodation provider Unite, which has 10 locations in the city, are currently advertising rooms starting from £235 per week. 

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She said: “From what I could see, if you wanted anything you'd actually be comfortable living in, I would be paying extortionate rates. So we just said that I'll stay here, I didn't want to live in my own house, so it still gives me a bit of independence, but without paying a stupid amount of money each week.”

Together with her boyfriend, they pay £250 per month, which includes food. Although, they will treat themselves to special meals for the occasional date night. They have managed a couple of holidays together, but will tend to book them up to 18 months in advance and pay in instalments. 

Like the majority of university students in the UK, Jess’ course fees and living costs are covered by student and maintenance loans. She also supplements her income with a part-time job at a family-run restaurant in her hometown of Bury. She earns the minimum wage for 21-year-olds in the UK, £10.18 per hour, meaning she gets around £160 per month. 

Once she has paid her rent for the month and other expenses, she is normally left with around £50 per week, which covers her lunches at university. Her biggest expenditure, however, is travel. Living in Bolton, working in Bury, studying in Manchester city centre and a weekly journalism placement means she has to travel the length and breadth of Greater Manchester almost every day. Luckily, she has a car, which is the cheapest option for her.

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She explained: “For the first two years I wasn't driving and I was paying £80 per month for a bus ticket for a student. The issue with that is that the buses aren't really reliable, so I was paying the £80 and then having to pay for an Uber most days anyway because they weren't showing up. A lot of student finance does go on buying petrol or towards my insurance because it's honestly the cheapest way I can do it because I was spending £80 and then spending another £8 a day on taxi.”

“You need to have balance”

Overall, Jess considers herself “lucky” thanks to the generosity of her boyfriend’s parents, and she enjoys having financial independence. But fitting in work alongside studies is difficult, especially when it comes to work-life balance.

She added: “Even without the money, I'm having to work which means I'm working four, five nights a week, usually two lunchtime shifts during the day, I do placement on Fridays. A lot of the time I don't even have a singular day to even do some washing.”

The situation is worse for one of her friends at Leeds Beckett University, who is unable to find any work. Jess told ManchesterWorld: “She's relying on her student loan, she gets it and it mostly goes entirely to rent. And then she's somehow supposed to afford food, somehow supposed to afford travel, other things, to have a life. People might see it as a privilege, but if you don't have a life, you're going to be miserable. You do need to have that balance.”

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As it stands, Jess is not able to save much money, but her boyfriend, who is finishing up an engineering apprenticeship, is able to. They talk about their finances openly and he supports her in her career choices, but Jess worries about the discrepancy in their saving potential and what this will mean for them when they start looking for a house together. 

Buying a house for many young people in Manchester seems an impossible dream. Buying a house for many young people in Manchester seems an impossible dream.
Buying a house for many young people in Manchester seems an impossible dream.

She said: “I worry that a lot of the costs might end up more one-sided. My boyfriend might say: if you're in your first job and not earning as much as I am, that's fine, but I wouldn't be comfortable. I wouldn't like it, I'd feel like I was using him, not providing as much when you should. I'm confident that we can get a house, it's just I don't how happy I will be about how it gets paid for because I am one of those people, I like to provide for myself and everyone else, if I can. I don't like being spent money on. You should see me at Christmas and birthdays, it's awful.”

Buying a house may not be on the cards any time soon for Jess, but finding a job is. She has started looking for her first journalism job but has already encountered some stumbling blocks, such as the limited number of opportunities there are in Greater Manchester compared to London.

For many early career journalists, finding an entry level job that pays well is tough. Student money website Save the Student says that the average starting salary for graduates is £38,500, although it varies greatly between industries. Journalism sits at the lower end of the scale, with the average starting salary currently at £22,500, according to the National Council for the Training of Journalists

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Jess said: “If money wasn't an option, it would be really lovely just to say: ‘That's a really good job, I'm going to go for it.’ But realistically, I need money to have a house, to have a family, to start those things and I need to know that whatever I'm going to apply for does have an acceptable wage for that.

“And it feels like a panic that if I'm going to be the process for this application and it says: have you got any questions, and I ask how much is the money, I kind of worry that that will be held against me, in that: ‘Oh you're only in this for the money, which I'm not.’ I really enjoy being a journalist but things cost and I need money.”

“A vicious cycle”

Young people embarking on careers today are starting off with an unfair disadvantage compared to previous generations, Jess says, and she wants to see this change. She feels that university fees are among the biggest “setbacks” for young people.

She said: “What panics me most is that I'm starting out my career already in over 30 grand of debt, which isn't my fault because without it I wasn't going to get a career. I feel like it's a bit of a vicious cycle in that people shouldn't have to start out their career and their financial independence in debt. It's a big weight on my shoulders that I kind of feel I will never get rid of. I know it gets erased, whatever's outstanding, after 30 years, but it's thirty years away and I want to start a family in the next ten. 

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“I am quite lucky in that I have a situation where my boyfriend's parents are willing to let me stay here and they are very generous and accepting in what I can and can't afford to pay in terms of rent and bills, but that's not really the situation for most people. A lot of my friends, I have an older sister who went to university, they all struggle and a lot of students are choosing whether to eat, or put the radiator on or whether to eat or buy that textbook because it's just not cheap.

“I don't think a lot of people realise how expensive it is to just get an education to get a job because the reality is, for a lot of careers, you are not going to get a job without the degree and there's not a lot of alternative options for many of them. I know for myself there's not a lot of alternative options.”

What is Project Peter Pan?

Today National World's 17 city world division news titles are collaborating to launch Project Peter Pan: championing the lost generation.

Project Peter Pan - launched as the UK heads toward a general election in 2024 - aims to use our collective local media power online to give a voice to those in their 20s and 30s who have negotiated a pandemic, work hard and are ambitious, yet are lost.

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They told our reporters they are frozen out of the housing ladder and stuck in a rental cycle often in substandard accommodation or they are in debt and facing impossible decisions. Meanwhile, they face accusations of 'laziness' as costs of living spiral, sparking a mental health epidemic. Politicians should take heed - they have a lot to say.