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Meet the students crowdfunding their degrees

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It will hardly come as a surprise that UK students who have incurred around £40,000 in debt over the course of their three year bachelor degree are unwilling to rack up more debt for a Masters - irrespective of how significant a second degree will be for their career or personal development.

In order to address this problem, various websites offering advice on how to fund postgraduate study are now suggesting crowdfunding - particularly as it will not be possible to take out a student loan for Masters courses until 2016.

Keen to avoid hefty Professional Career and Development Loans following tuition fee increases, many UK students now follow this advice.

Last year The National Student interviewed Emily-Rose Eastop (pictured), who crowdfunded £26.5k in fees, accommodation, and living costs for her MSc at Wadham College, Oxford. We also spoke to Genevieve Richardson, who earlier this year raised £13.9k for her MPhil in Development Studies at Oxford after failing to qualify for scholarships and bursaries that would have facilitated her entry into further study.

Spurred on by stories like theirs, more and more students are following in their footsteps, relying on the kindness of others for support.

Crowdfunding alone rarely raises enough money to fully cover the costs of a degree, and most fundraisers don’t expect it to. Genevieve plans to work two part-time jobs alongside study, as a private tutor and as an events promoter, which will cover maintenance costs. Students also tend to apply for scholarships and bursaries before turning to crowdfunding, many of them using crowdfunding platforms as a top-up after receiving a partial scholarship.

Florence Brady graduated the University of Oxford this year, and now has a place on the MA in Ensemble Theatre at Rose Bruford drama school. As well as taking out a loan, applying for additional grants, working full-time over the summer, working alongside study, and gaining a £1,500 scholarship from the Valerie Clark Memorial Trust, she is crowd-funding £1500 towards her £9,900 tuition.

Keziah Conroy graduated UCL in the top 5% of her year, and won the departmental prize for the best dissertation. She won a £2,000 scholarship towards her MRes in Biodiversity, Evolution and Conservation, but is now crowd-funding her tuition fees having missed out on other, bigger scholarships. “With course fees being £13,285 and my rent in a modest, east London flat-share at about £7,000 a year, I knew I wouldn't be able survive, even with a well-paid full-time job on top of this full-time course.”

In 2012, a heavily pregnant Pamela Okende completed an undergraduate degree in Law with First Class Honours. Now a mother of three, she aspires to a career at the Bar. Having won a £5,000 scholarship towards her tuition, and already having deferred entry once, she feels she has exhausted all other options and is hoping to crowd-fund the remaining £12,100.

So what are the ingredients to a successful crowdfunding campaign? Keziah says the most important things is to invest “creativity and energy” into promoting the campaign, becoming your own marketing manager to ensure online presence and grab the attention of sponsors.

Genevieve also describes her campaign as “unrelenting”, having contacted everyone she knew and been extremely active on social media. Press coverage helps as well, of course; Genevieve was interviewed in her local paper and on BBC radio, while Emily-Rose was featured in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and The Huffington Post.

One of the biggest challenges of crowdfunding is to overcome the awkwardness of asking people for money. Genevieve cited this as one of the main obstacles to success, and said it had prompted many of her friends to end crowdfunding campaigns, but emphasised perseverance.

Pamela and Keziah told us it makes them more comfortable to offer rewards within their campaigns, so that there are benefits for both parties, while Florence pointed out: “People do small kindnesses for friends, family and total strangers all the time, every day. My general line of approach is ‘instead of buying me a pint, please would you consider sponsoring my studies’ - the fact that I expected fivers and have been getting fifties has been overwhelming.”

And there’s no need simply to rely on friends and family for support: as Keziah informs us, “I've now had more individual pledges from strangers than people I personally know.” The same is true of Emily-Rose Eastop, whose £26.5k was mostly raised following national press involvement, and included donations from a Harvard Psychology Professor and the incoming music director of the London Symphony Orchestra Simon Rattle.

Many will criticise crowdfunding campaigns as sponging, or the tool of spoiled brats who think they deserve something for nothing. But crowd-funders aren’t demanding your money; they’re simply asking if you could spare anything to help them out, and working very hard to persuade you they’re a good investment.

As Florence puts it, “I’m not trying to freeload, nor am I demanding someone to just pay for me – I’m politely asking for as much help as my friends and family would like to give, because I don’t have the resources. No one’s obliged, nor am I trying to con anyone.” And with so many hopeful crowd-funders offering rewards and benefits as thanks for your donation, this is a two-way street.

Genevieve says: “The criticism that I've found most difficult to grapple with is the notion that I should have worked beforehand to save the money, or that I should have saved my student loan during my undergraduate degree; I don't think any adult, let alone student, could dream of saving £18,000 whilst working or studying!”

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