Dr Lynn Jones: Understanding a graduate’s hidden costs

During July Design Insider has been focused on graduates, we have loved sharing examples of the truly excellent work created by the UK’s 2018 graduate cohort which you can enjoy here and here.

Dr Lynn Jones was my course leader when I completed the MA Furniture Design course at Buckinghamshire New University, she had a huge impact on my career, grounded in the confidence that she gave me, and all of her students, in our abilities and the opportunities available to us upon graduation.  Since leaving the university Lynn has continued to support design students through her furniture industry staff search service and working as a furniture careers adviser. Last month I read an article Lynn published on LinkedIn which prompted me to seek her advice for students, recent graduates and employers on the hidden costs which graduates experience.

My conversation with Lynn is timely as this year’s graduates will be the first cohort who will pay the maximum rate of tuition fees for the full duration of their course and current students are faced with an increase in their annual fees to £9250.

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1. What is the scale of (design) student debt?

Six years after their introduction in 2012 UK tuition fees stand at £9250 for most 2018 entrants (slightly less in Wales at £9000 pa). Who knows what it will be in the future! The goal posts change, as do the incentives for people to choose to go to University.

Three years of fees now = £27,750

So on top of fees, accommodation – £500 per month for 36 months = £18,000; + utility bills = £2000 (circa £55 per month for 3 years)

So we are up to £47,7450… before accounting for: Food, travel, books, materials and equipment, toiletries (lets not forget sanitary products – another debate!), interview costs (+ clothes)….

The absolute minimum debt therefore is £50,000+. Most students tell me they are between £55,000 and £80,000 in debt varying greatly due to any parents voluntary contribution, accommodation costs (and therefore quality of accommodation, let’s not forget – some graduates I meet are living in squalid conditions), travel costs and so on.

2. What is the impact of student debt on student wellbeing?

Big question. Many of these young people are VERY YOUNG. At 18 they are thrust into managing their own finances for the first time. Banks, loan costs, interest rates…all new to them. Poor diet, new routines (eg 4 lectures a week…how to structure their time..and sleep for example is another issue. Peer pressure – going out spending without realising what clubs and pubs charge for example)…large student groups sometimes mean they get lost in a sea of students, embarrassed to admit to lecturers or anyone that they are struggling to cope with everyday stuff. They haven’t all got the confidence to seek out the counselling service. Even shopping for food and washing of clothes can be a challenge for many. Depression is common.

A common complaint from students is the poor quality of their accommodation. They’ll talk about that quite a lot. They’ll say their living in grotty little place and they’re living with people they didn’t necessarily choose to live with or they’re just struggling to mentally stay content everyday because they’re not really enjoying where they’re living. This sometimes opens up a bigger conversation about their wellbeing. They’ll say, “It’s making me ill. I’ve been to the doctors. Actually, I’m gonna go home for a few weeks.”

This is the point when their lives start to unravel because they don’t want to be seen to be struggling. Particularly in the context of looking for a job because graduating students don’t want their employers to think they’re not strong and it’s a catch 22 situation.

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3. What expenses might a graduate be faced with once they have finished their course that a potential employee may not be aware of?

Putting a portfolio or website together can cost hundreds of pounds. I know there are free sites for doing this but a lot of graduates want to do it really well so that they get the best likelihood of impressing people.

Something which employers and graduates fall short on is that they don’t ask, “Okay, should I bring a portfolio and what form should that take?” Sometimes an employer may request a hard copy portfolio, then there’s another cost. A lot of graduating students choose to create books that you can self publish and it’s expensive! There’s a graduate who just paid 150 pounds to do one of those. Then he can’t afford it. He won’t eat now for two weeks.

Many graduates are in a kind of no man’s land of not having a salary, but finishing university and those dates can be problematic when they continue to be responsible for their rent. Then there’s this thing that kicks in about signing on, typically people don’t want to which is quite common. They want to get a job because they think that signing on means that they’ll lose their accommodation somehow.

This pressure means that recent graduates are more desperate to get a job and they don’t want to go back to their parents or they can’t go back to them. I know that sounds really obvious, but they’re having to pay rent and sometimes that’s a lot of money. This is where the nasty jobs come in!

4. What recently highlighted you to the impact of graduate expenses?

The stories I hear first hand from graduates I teach, I meet via my external examining activities, or I meet because I advise/coach them to help prepare them for work. I hear what they say but they don’t want to disclose their concerns to a potential employer for fear of being judged and losing the job.

In my LinkedIn article I asked, ‘Would you be surprised to find out that your daughter was working for an escort agency to help her pay for her rent, her food and now her interview expenses?’ I wrote this article after speaking to a design graduate for whom this was the scenario. She told me that she had four interviews lined up in the next month. Great! … but, that her travel costs had meant she had to earn money fast to be able to attend all four. For her, one train journey from the North East to Plymouth – super off peak return – is £232.50, now times this by four! Not wanting to increase the burden of her £60,000+ loan, she decided to take the work at the escort agency.

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5. What advice do you give employers on supporting recent graduates on their journey in to employment?

Talk to them!

Be clear on what they need to bring to interview and in what format, consider the cost implications of what you are asking. Advise on how they should dress and offer Skype interviews which are particularly useful on both sides for informal or first interviews.

Ask graduates where they live, how they will get to an interview, how much the train fare will cost and pro-actively offer to pay their travel expenses, or offer a standard contribution for graduates travelling over say 25 miles. Offer to collect them from the station, provide a bus time table….small things really.

Graduates tell me it makes a huge difference when they feel supported, I think that’s what it is about. It’s about giving the message that you’re a good employer because you’re offering this support from the beginning, which in turn means if they go and work for you, they’re feeling supported before they start. I think that’s really important.

6. What advice do you give recent graduates on how to approach interview costs with potential employers?

To have the confidence to ask the questions you need answered: What form should my portfolio take? Can we view it on screen/tablet? Do you offer any help towards travel expenses – if not can I have an interview time please which allows me to travel at off peak time? I see you have an office in London (or wherever) so could the interview take place there instead to reduce travel costs? What should I wear? (I get asked this a lot!). Can you give me advice about public transport/buses as I see your office/workshop is quite remote and I don’t have a car at the moment?

Presumably one of the pieces of advice to a graduate is to look at recruitment agents like yourself for their sector that can work on their behalf, who can ask some of these awkward questions or things you might feel are awkward on your behalf?

Yeah, I don’t discriminate. If people ask me for advice, they don’t have to apply for one of my jobs. I will never charge a graduate for any advice. If they get my advice and then go somewhere else, I don’t care about that. It’s just making sure that they get the advice.

I’d love it if it was happening in universities. Sometimes I go to universities to give advice. They need to get it from somewhere, that might be me or it might be their tutors. There’s some really excellent tutors around!

We invite you to join this conversation by leaving your comment below, or by tweeting us @DesignInsider1 

About Alys Bryan

Alys' experience as a furniture designer, along with her in-depth marketing knowledge, makes her uniquely placed to work with the BCFA as the Editor of Design Insider and run her marketing business, Method Communications.
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