It's been used to finance films, games, apps and even one man’s quest to make a potato salad, but now, with the eye-watering costs of higher education, some students are turning to crowd-funding as a way of paying for their studies.
One such individual was Oxford student Emily-Rose Eastop, who after struggling to get a job after graduating with a 2:1 In Human Sciences applied, and was accepted, to Oxford on an MSc course. The only barrier was her lack of £26,000.
Hers is one of the successes stories. After setting up a page explaining her dilemma on ‘Hubbub’ (one of the many crowd-funding sites) she managed to raise £26,570, exceeding her target by over £200. She even managed to attract the attention of prominent academics such as Stephen Pinker and Douglas Hofstadter, both of whom donated to her cause.
However, money was not the only thing attracted by Emily’s campaign; it received a huge amount of online vitriol. One comment on her page spat: “Why don’t you get a job like the rest of us and work to get enough money to go and get your degrees like I, and the rest of us have done…Have they no shame in the UK?”. Many of the comments echo this anger at her success at finding a way of circumventing the difficulties faced by millions. ‘We had to suffer to pay for our degrees’ they say, so ‘you should too’.
In the press she’s also been branded a ‘posh brat’, a claim presumably based on the middle-class area of London inhabited by her parents rather than the state school she attended. But surely raising the money independently, rather than relying on the ‘The Bank of Mum and Dad’ is the very opposite of the aforementioned ‘brattish’ behaviour? Yet public reaction suggests that the world is not convinced. Emily addresses the jibes about getting a job by reasoning 'How much would I have to be earning per year to put away the £26,000 I need for my masters, even living at home with my parents?'
However ‘fair’ crowd-funding seems as a means of paying for your degree, the process of setting oneself up on one of the many student-targeted fundraising sites is distinctly less so. Many websites are making an enormous profit from students’ plight. ‘GoFundMe’ takes a 10% cut, not simply from the total amount raised but from every single donation. PayPal also take a 50p cut from each payment, meaning fundraisers only see £3.50 of every £5 donated.
There is also the danger of throwing open ambition to the whims of the public. It’s perhaps inevitable that students with a good X Factor-style story and those who are studying for a vocational course which will benefit others tend to attract donations over someone from a non-disadvantaged background wanting to work in a niche academic area. However, making the public the judge of which degrees are ‘worthy’ of funding is a dangerous game; potentially serving to perpetuate the idea of academia being the pursuit of the privileged.
For those whose course is less appealing or interesting to the masses, the challenge is to find a way to encourage donations by offering incentives. Perhaps one of the reasons behind the success of Emily-Rose Eastop’s campaign was its heavy emphasis on shared learning; she promised to share all that she had learned on her course via her blog. 'I am not coercing people - I'm asking whether they would like to donate, willingly, in exchange for insight into my studies.' Admittedly, this puts some students at an immediate disadvantage if they are not studying something particularly fashionable or easy to explain. Many also might not want the added pressure of running a blog- often a full-time job in itself- alongside studying.
So, whether crowd-funding adheres to our own sense of ‘fairness’ or not, it is clear that, with rapidly rising fees, more options for financing university study are required. Emily sums up her view of crowd-funding by saying: 'Imagine if everybody with a bank account had a Hubbub page and threw a pound at a couple of projects a week. With enough members, we as a society could fund all sorts of great things at practically no cost to the individual.'
Perhaps one day, with a bit of refining, crowd-funding might be able to do just that.