Want a degree for free? No problem – if you are a pensioner

I’m going to write more on the UK welfare problem later this week, but amid all the talk about the removal of universal benefits from well-off pensioners and so on, I want to point you briefly towards an article in the Sunday Telegraph this week.

It tells the story of a nice-sounding lady called Christine Armstrong. Armstrong is 66. She has just completed a BA in English at Oxford and is now doing a Master’s degree. She loves it. The “beauty of doing a degree in your 60s”, she says, “ is that you really want to do it.” So, all the reading, which might be a chore for the young is a “great pleasure.”

Your first thought, I dare say, will be that you are impressed. You will think it makes sense for the retired to keep themselves active of mind and body and you will know that those with a goal of some kind tend to live longer and be healthier than those who do not. But what if I told you that you are paying for Armstrong to keep herself busy?

Under the new student loans system (I think of it as more of a progressive tax – see my blog on it here – but we’ll call it a loan because everyone else does), no one on an income of under £21,000 has to pay back their student loans to the taxpayer. Armstrong has taken out a student loan to cover her tuition fees (the maximum is £9,000 a year).

She has also received a maintenance grant (£3,354 if your household income is under £25,000). Armstrong’s pension income is under £21,000. The result? Her loans aren’t actually loans. They are gifts from us to her. And rather large gifts too – if she has taken the maximum every year, she is costing us over £12,000 a year. I’d love to live in an economy where this kind of thing was OK. Sadly we don’t. We just can’t afford this stuff.

You can read the original article here: ‘I’ll never have to repay my student loan’.

  • Boris MacDonut

    This lady was born in 1946,conceived at the end of the war. As both a foetus and a baby she would not have had the benefit of a NHS. Born into a war ravaged economy still rationing food,clothing and fuel she would have been educated to 15 if she was lucky. In1961 when she was denied the chance of higher education and all the boys went into the army,only 5% of people even did a degree. Should she be denied the opportunities that her children’s generation had simply because she is 66? Who is to say she will not live to 90 and lead a much more fulfilled life with her degree and her experiences at university?
    Really Merryn, tuition fees are not a loan nor welfare. You yourself said so. I recall you telling us to see it as an extra tax on clever folk who earn a bit more.
    These are the rules and I wish more of our retired did this.It would gaurantee more academic jobs.Part of living in a modern civilised nation is the promise of a decent education for all, regardless of age.

  • electedface

    Student debt is stunting the growth of the economy. Student loans have increased by 275% over past decade. As the next generation graduates from college, they are plagued by insurmountable debt that places demands on their income, limiting their ability to spend their earnings in ways that stimulate the economy.


  • dr ray

    sure the pensioner has every right to play the system to her advantage presumably in the same way you would agree that it is right for tax dodgers and bonus hungry bankers to play the system, but you must conceed the system is wrong here. There is nothing stopping her developing an interest even to a high academic standard and there are many pensioners who do Open University degrees but should she really take taxpayer money which could instead support the development of a young person and eventually be paid back with a productive working life. Even if this lady lives until 90 it is most unlikely society would ever benefit from supporting her education.
    So my own view is good luck to her as she broadens her outlook and excerises her brain but why should I pay for it while also supporting my own three thildren through their education with no help from the State.

  • Clive

    @ electedface (no. 2/3)

    Assume you know this video is talking about US student debt, not UK ?

    As to “Student debt is stunting the growth of the economy”, I can understand students wanting “free” (i.e. taxpayer funded) degrees. However, doing that would leave taxpayers with less money and that would also “stunt the economy”.

    I’ve of the age that got a “free” degree and would be happy to see us return to that – BUT that was when a lot less than 10% of people went to Uni. So, reduce student numbers massively and it becomes affordable. (Can’t see we “need” 40-50% graduates at all)

  • Boris MacDonut

    #4drray.You have the argument backwards. The clue is in tuition fee. The money does not go to her it goes to employ her tutors.
    The point of Universities is society offering a service to its people . It is not relevant if society as a whole will benefit, but whether she is happy and fulfilled. Would society be a better place if she was resentful and uneducated?
    Let’s hope your 3 kids are doing something we all find useful and not some mickey mouse subject like Classics.

  • Ellen

    The problem with treating a degree as a personal enhancement program, rather than necessary foundation training for future careers, is that often specific degrees are a requirement before a person is allowed embark on certain careers.

    To waive the costs for those who want to ‘expand their mind’ and do not need to utilize their degree to support themselves, I think, is odd. These people, more than any, should contribute towards the cost of their degree precisely because society does not benefit from it.

    Engineers, lawyers, scientists, doctors, dentists, teachers etc all utilize their degree in the course of their working lives. They benefit from their degree but so do their employers and clients.

  • Dr Ray

    What would make me happy and fulfilled would be a nice Porsche and someone to pay the running costs. It would keep the local petrol filling station and garage in work so its not really for my benefit.
    I reckon the tax payer should fund it for me.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #7 Ellen. You have voiced this misconception before regarding direct utility of degrees. A university education should be a sign of a trained mind, the ability to grasp a subject and all its esoterica. A sign of discipline,hard work and critical enquiry. Not funding something because “society doesn’t benefit” is an admission of a lack of civilisation. The lowest unemployment rate is among graduates in Greek……..the ancient language of the Buyzantines, not the mother tongue of Europe’s basket case.

  • Romford Dave

    But that would require funding from our Department of International Developement Dr Ray, being that the car in question is German.

    Might be somewhat embarrassing having the new UKAID logo displayed alongside the Porsche one, given its Weimar origins.

    Some might even think it a little prophetic?

    Perhaps asylum would be the better route for funding, it looks like it’s been taken over already………

  • Clive


    Your comments fail to mention affordability or proportion. Would you still support her actions if they cost £20K/yr, £50K/yr, £100K/yr ?

    At any time the benefit ‘pot’ is a fixed size. If she gets £12K/yr, somebody else fails to. On a scale of real need (life saving) to simple desire, I’d put her very much up the desire end and not at all a need.

  • Nick V

    This student loan system appears to be a farce. What is the point of a loan which does not have to be paid back. Either make education free or charge for it based on means testing.

    Education should be free to those who can not afford it but with restrictions. 1 degree only per person. Full time attendance and ability. Also some way for the student to put back into society that which they have taken. E.G Charity work in hospitals to help feed the elderly people there who are otherwise left with no attention and there meals going cold.

  • Nick V

    There should also be a justification for the size of the fees charged. To me the fees appear too high. I remember when I was at university the professors only appeared to work a few hours a week and there were over 100 people on the course. The maths doesn’t add up unless of course it is for providing the university with a massive profit.

    However all this said. I have not been in the UK now for 5 years and I am deeply concerned by the articles and information I am reading.
    Things which I was brought up to believe in: Free Education, Pensions, Unemployment benefit, People having affordable housing, Equality, all appear to be going down the pan. Is this true?? What is happening over there??

  • Ellen

    @9 Boris. If you define civilization as paying for the elderly to broaden their minds while their teeth rot or they can’t access a doctor, that’s up to you.

    I would much prefer seeing society benefit by giving young people the skills to attempt new breakthroughs in science and technology and training people up to enable them be part of the engine of society. I fully applaud this lady for taking this opportunity but I do think that while a county is not in a position to pay for the training of much needed future professionals, this type of expenditure is a very unnecessary indulgence.

  • dr ray

    Well said Ellen.
    If someone wants the indulgence of a university education (or a Porsche) just for personal pleasure without any benefit for anyone else they are perfectly free to pay for it themselves (or set their sights on something else which they can afford). Much of what is taught in university is available free on the internet anyway.

  • MichaelL

    Lets be honest this is just a joke – someone who is gaming the tax system at the expense of everyone else. I’m sure more people would do it too, thats just the culture of the UK.

  • Tony

    On account of parliament having wrecked private pensions, I suppose
    some of these pensioners will use university courses as a cheap way to keep occupied. Also if you can get a maintenance grant, this benefit by itself would be a worthwhile benefit to many lower income pensioners.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #13 Sorry Ellen, but what a twit.

  • Hans

    Ellen your comment is spot on. Repeated here:
    “If you define civilization as paying for the elderly to broaden their minds while their teeth rot or they can’t access a doctor, that’s up to you.”
    Also I wonder how many old age pensioners will freeze to death during the current cold spell because they can’t afford to keep on the heat. The welfare system or any form of retristribution always seems to lead to a very perverse order of priorities. After all you have politicians spending other people’s money on other people for personal gain (of the politicians).

  • Boris MacDonut

    #18 Hans. You are missing my point. I do not say offer education but no healthcare. I say give both. That is why I refer to Ellen as I do. It is childish of her even to suggest this. But while on the subject I assume she is happy to have stupid pensioners with good teeth.

  • Ellen

    @ Boris. And you miss my point. While this country is busy opening up university opportunities to the elderly, they are turning bright and able young people away from the same opportunities that will not only broaden their minds, but help secure a future. They are already talking about bringing down entry requirements on some degree courses because brighter students are being put off by the prospect of a lifetime a debt.

    You need to ask where this leads and it could bring us to a place where suitable numbers graduates in professions society need do not make it through the system – so while we may be home to the most fulfilled pensioners in the world, there may not be enough doctors, dentists and other professionals to service their needs.

    And, as an aside, I do not equate stupidity with the lack of a history degree. You are sounding very elitist again!

  • JT

    lingness to engage with the issues. Presumably because you’ve run out of ideas.

  • DGL

    Surely the point is that over the last 40 ? years a University degree haas been considerably devalued…like the rest of our education system standards continue to deteriorate….. Probably only 5%- 10 % of uni degrees now ‘add value’ to society…
    I’m a pensioner and this looks like a good wheeze to me…

  • Boris MacDonut

    #22 It’s not a good wheeze ,it is a desire to learn.Something Ellen and JT feel should be denied on the grounds of age and cost. A sort of educational euthanasia. This is contrary to the human rights legislation and contrary to sane and civilised ways.

  • JT

    #23 Boris

    I see nothing contrary to sane and civilised ways in limiting access to education on grounds of age and cost, given there is a finite pot of cash and education has a clear social and economic utility. Unless of course you’ve discovered a magic money tree, Boris?

  • dr ray


    Don’t be harsh on our Boris. Like all socialists he finds it very easy to spend someone elses money

  • Romford Dave

    A finite pot displays a limit to imagination JT.

    Imagine a limitless pot, filled with milk and honey. A land of abundance, where everything was freely available to all and angels sang whilst walking a path free of fear.

    It’s said the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder, which is kind of true but still vexing when put forward by those misguided enough to believe heaven can be created on earth once they’ve appropriated enough of your money to buy the land, the milk and the honey.

    The dream usually ends once the ethic of reciprocity is explained by the pointy end of a gun.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #24 JT .Disgraceful comment . You really are something to be able to say that.
    #25 drray. I am not a Socialist any more than you are a Nazi. I fear you react badly to anyone that opposes your world view. I take exception to being associated with Socialists, people might think I voted Labour….which for the record I have never done, even when I was a member for 4 years in the 1980’s.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #25 drray. But I am not a Socialist anymore than you adhere to the tenets of the party ruling Germany in the 1930’s. I have never voted Labour,even when I was a party member for 5 years in the 1980’s.
    #24 JT.You see nothing wrong because you lack a decent moral perspective. I find your comment disgraceful.

  • JT


    Oh get over yourself, Boris, and spare us the sanctimonious finger wagging. I make a simple point about the choices which follow from finite resources. If you find that really so unpleasant, tough. This is a public forum and you have no right ‘not to be offended’ (which of course you fully appreciate because you’re continually shooting your mouth off about ‘toffs’ and Tories).

  • Boris MacDonut

    #29 JT. You behave in an oafish manner and then fake surpsrise when someone takes you to task. It is frankly oafish to suggest denying anyone a decent education is an inherent good. You set yourself up as the pantomime villain and now can’t take the boos and hisses. In the words of Jim Royls, “finite pot of cash my ***”.

  • JT

    Boris, I have at no point suggested that denying someone an education is “an inherent good”. Go back, re-read my posts and then get off your high horse.

  • Ellen

    @30 Boris. The denial of education is not being directed at pensioners but at school leaver who are being forced to choose between a lifetime of debt and servitude or a degree, that might or might not pay for itself.

    Either way, this is yet another example of the perverse misallocation of scarce resources going up the generations instead of down the generations!

  • Boris MacDonut

    #31 JT. Defending anyone’s right to learn is not bweing on a high horse.It is being civilised.
    #32 Ellen. Nobody is being denied an education. You miss the point again. This lady would have been denied a proper education at 16 to 21, so now we are putting it right. You see everything, literally everything in pound notes and it makes for a tediously one sided discussion.

  • JT

    Yes Boris, I agree, there is nothing wrong per se with defending the notion of a right to learn (although the lady in question DID get an education so you’re arguing something rather different).

    What you haven’t explained (and consistently fail to engage with in debate) is how this universal access to education (and benefits, pensions and the rest) are to be funded. Let’s debate that, and without labeling contributors as ‘twit’ or ‘toff’ or some other disparaging moniker.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #34 Universal access to education simply has to be funded. There is not much point in asking how. Perhaps we could abolish the military and use that money. Or just impose a 3% annual wealth tax on everyone worth more than £3million. Perhaps abolish the charitable status of private schools or introduce a tax on horse/boat ownership. Not a modest one , a punitive one.

  • Lorraine

    I presume that the lady in question would have contributed taxes over the years which should at least be taken into account now that she has the time and inclination to complete a degree, so it would be a case of reaping the benefits now, albeit belated.

    Although I agree that it would be worrying if a lot of pensioners jumped on the same bandwagon, only because of the costs to the country, how many pensioners are actually going to take up a degree at age 60?

    For those who do, is it fair to deny them the opportunity especially as their peers would probably have had a free uni ed. anyway.

    I would like to think that an active brain at that age could still lead to something worthwhile in society, e.g. charity work later on. I believe that most people feel the need to do something worthwhile with their degrees etc. once they have achieved them.

  • Boris MacDonut

    #36 Lorriane. Studying for a degree is worthwhile. Furthering one’s education is worthwhile. Without having to justify it in pound notes. Surely society benefits from having erudite , interested and educated memebers. Think how much is spent on prisons. Then think again.

  • Critic Al Rick

    And then think about the consequences of commonsense having been largely blown out the window by this self-perpetuating, self-appraising, self-serving, readily indoctrinatable morass of graduated academic apprentices.

    Society has benefitted… in the longer term?!

    There’s none so blind as those that don’t want to see. Ostrich comes to mind.

  • JT

    Yes, Boris, furthering one’s education is generally a good thing, as is motherhood and apple pie.

    But when someone asserts as you do that state provision of something “simply has to be funded. There is not much point in asking how”, one immediately sees that that individual attaches no value to it, hasn’t read much history and, consequently, is recklessly irresponsible.

  • modsa

    As one born in1924 I remember the depression. Boris is, like most politicians being economical with the truth. Christine may not have had the NHS available in ’46, I don’t know, as I was awaiting demob in Singapore then, but I do remember trying to get an appointment with the dentist in 1948, and having horrendeous difficulty as by then dentists were free on the NHS.

  • studentat60

    Creating opportunity for older people to take care of their brains is really important. Other comments have pointed out that someone in their mid-60s could easily live for another 30 years. Allowing their brains to wither away will not benefit them or the rest of us. I gained a BA in my 50s and now, in my 60s, I am working for an MA. I am self-funded but I really think the state should help people who want to improve their minds, however old they are. http://studentat60.blogspot.co.uk/

  • Lupulco

    On the subject of pay your way, in the 60’s to 90’s when around 10% got free? [paid by the taxpayer] university education. Then went to live abroad, never needing to pay back the cost to the taxpayers, or benefiting UK PLC.
    Maybe its time for UK PLC to send a bill to these people for the cost of their Degrees?
    Or maybe, make the University Education free, but you cannot obtain a passport till you have paid back the cost before you leave.
    In doing this for UK citizens, we could make this a condition for all EU citizens who get free university tuition at the taxpayers cost, before returning home. Making use of their degree but without even considering the repayment of their student loans, seeing the UK as a soft touch.
    Good luck to the Lady Pensioner, til %rates rise to their historic norms, let us milk the system for all its worth till we are bankrupt