According to the National Union of Students (NUS), British students are being forced to turn to prostitution to fund their studies and this trend looks set to continue with tuition fees due to rise drastically in the 2012 academic year. The BBC reported that Estelle Hart, the national women’s officer for the NUS, had said during an interview on Radio 5 Live that “students are taking more dangerous measures. In an economic climate where there are very few jobs, where student support has been massively cut, people are taking more work in the informal economy, such as sex work. It’s all dangerous unregulated work, simply so people can stay in education”. Prostitution isn’t the only illegal work referred to; some students are taking part in medical experiments and gambling to earn enough money to get them through their university years.
Although there are no concrete figures to prove that the trend is set to continue, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence. The BBC also quotes a spokesperson from the English Collective of Prostitutes, who claims that calls from university students has ‘at least doubled’ over the last year. Phone sex and lap dancing are other ‘careers’ to which students are turning. The Daily Mail cites a professor from Kingston University in London, who claims that his university’s research has shown that those students who know somebody who has worked in the sex industry has increased enormously from 3% to 25% over a period of ten years. Bearing in mind that tuition fees haven’t even gone up yet, this is causing serious concern in many quarters.
The government announced in 2010 that tuition fees were set to rise across UK universities, starting in 2012 and that the fees could be as much as £9,000, compared to around £3,000 for the 2011/12 academic year. Those in education have protested against the rise in tuition fees, to no avail. Initial figures show that this has affected numbers of students applying for university. The Guardian reported in October that university applications have fallen by 12% over the previous year, which union leaders claim proves that the rise in tuition fees has been a disaster and that students are being forced to choose the course that is cheapest, rather than the one that is best for them.
The government, however, has fought back against the claims of disaster. David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science pointed out the financial help available to students: “Most new students will not pay upfront, there will be more financial support for those from poorer families and everyone will make lower loan repayments than they do now once they are in well-paid jobs”. Bursaries offered by individual universities may also be on the increase and students won’t be required to start repaying their loans until they earn at least £21,000. There has also been the suggestion that the figures The Guardian is quoting are no great cause for concern at the moment, because October application figures are often off-kilter and even if there is a real fall, next year’s figures could well make up for it.
It does still remain to be seen just how much the rise in tuition fees will affect the number of those in higher education. However, as things stand at the moment, it appears that the fear of getting into debt may either be forcing high school students to choose the option of finding a job, or that those who find themselves struggling to pay their way through university will consider choices that they may not otherwise have considered. The fact that the current evidence that some students are considering unsafe work is largely anecdotal doesn’t really matter; it is a warning sign that should not be ignored if the government doesn’t want it to become a serious problem.