Thursday, December 07, 2006

Loans, wages, and the injustice of Year Abroad finance

Those of us who, on our Year Abroad, have chosen to work or teach (those being two different things, clearly) are both students and employees at the same time. This is complex enough for us to understand ourselves, let alone anyone else, and can be very awkward to try to explain to, for example, your flatmates, or your bank manager.
As a result of this rather bizarre situation, although in the government's eyes we deserve more money (because we are living abroad), each potential source of finance individually decides that we deserve less, and so we are paid a "work experience" salary and we receive a fraction of our student loan. This in itself is not a great problem, since with the two put together one can live.

However, the injustice goes further than that. In as far as the loan is concerned, the Student Finance forms fail to include a suitable box to teach for the Teaching Assistant situation, forcing one to be either on 'paid placement' or 'study abroad'. As a result, no two british councillers fill in the form the same way, and we all receive totally different amounts of loan, varying from about 1/3 of the full loan, to its entirety. My personal experience was that I asked a Student Finance advisor, who clearly hadn't a clue what I was talking about and told me to send a letter about what I was going to be doing (which I duly did). But there are thousands of us every year, and have been since before loans began: they surely ought to get familiar with our case?!

On the other side, as regards wages, we are paid about half the salary of a normal teacher ( i think), for doing 12 hours a week, when "normal" teachers in France do 15-18 hours. According to the powers that be, this ought to be enough to live on. They also like to tell us that with only 12 hours a week, we will have lots of time to travel around, and to experience the French culture. However, they fail to mention that this will only be possible if we finance it ourselves (and, incidentally, we don't have the right to take on other contracted part-time work).

Most of the assistants I know are paying between €300 and €450 in rent per month. Add to this €100 for food (which is only feasible if you are eating tesco value equivalent everything and not much at that), €30 for dinner out once a month and €50 for a few evenings in the pub and maybe a concert, or a trip to the cinema. Then there's the Técély (metro card) at €30 and phone credit or contract at €30/40. Put together, we're already at €690, which means that if you ever want to go back to england or you go to Paris for the weekend (each at more or less €100), that's your €760 easily used up. Don't forget you also have to pay £200 a term fees to cambridge (but that's why you have a loan as well as your salary).
Forget the weekend of skiing at €110, forget clothes and shoes, books in french, letters and presents to send home. Forget buying cheese on the market at €5 a piece. Forget singing lessons or subscriptions to various other activities, or dance classes at €10 a time. Forget all those visions you had of visiting your fellow year-abroaders for friendly gatherings in their different European hideouts.

On the other hand, some assistants have the wonderful fortune to be housed by their school at a rate of €0-€75 per month, giving them at least an extra €300 a month to play with. Now that equates to three weekends away, two new pairs of shoes and three or four more dinners out, posh food, cinema once a week and regular dance classes. You get the idea. Now that is very nice for them, but one wonders whether the salary was designed with them in mind, or with us in mind? It certainly makes us gasp when we compare their life abroad with the life of someone stuck in the banlieue paying through the nose just because they're foreign.

I'll stop there as the rant's gone far enough and i don't want to suggest we don't have enough money to be able to live well out here (as I say, thank goodness we get some loan) but I don't think there's any harm done in pointing out the injustices in the system(s), is there? And this time, it's not just the fault of french paperwork…At least we can be thankful we get more than a full time intern in a paris office, c. €300).

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