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The decision to scrap the student maintenance grant and replace it with a larger student loan has been justified by George Osbourne because the grants are “unaffordable”. Those in favour of the decision claim that introducing a larger loan will be better for the taxpayer and aid lower income students by providing them with more money (up to £8,200 per year) in loan. However, in reality, the scrapping of the maintenance grant is likely to be hugely damaging for the vast majority of students, particularly those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Five years after the raising of tuition fees in 2012, this decision – along with the removal of the Education Maintenance Allowance in 2012; proposals to remove bursaries for student nurses and health care professionals; the decision that from 2017 tuition fees can rise with inflation, without similar increases in loans; as well as outlines in The Green Paper to allow more prestigious universities, which achieve highly on the Teaching Excellence Framework, to charge higher fees – comes as part of a sustained attack on students from the current government.
Under the current system maintenance grants are accessed by more than 500,000 students. Students from the lowest financial backgrounds are eligible for up to £3,475 in non-repayable grant. Under the new system this will be replaced with a larger loan. The maintenance grant has been shown to increase participation rates in lower income students. Nevertheless, according to The Sutton Trust, in 2014 students from disadvantaged areas were 2.8 times less likely to go to university than those from rich areas. When there is already such a divide between those with wealthy backgrounds and those without, the scrapping of maintenance grants will dissuade lower income students from applying, thus increase the disparity.
As a student from a lower income background, I cannot express how important this grant has been to me. Without it I would not have felt so comfortable coming to university. As the eldest of five children, I am aware that my parents could not support me to the extent that the grant does. For some students, who are unable to receive support from their families, this is more valuable still. Many students who receive the grant still need to work around their degrees in order to afford living costs. Without the grant, these students would need to work more hours, potentially compromising their studies; statistics suggest students working 15 hours a week are a third less likely to obtain a high degree classification. Students who are under financial stress are also more likely to develop mental health issues, and less likely to enjoy their overall student experience, thus devaluing their time at university.
I currently receive full maintenance grant and I am estimated to graduate with close to £40,000 of debt. This figure is staggering, but it pales in comparison to the debt that my siblings may graduate with; the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that scrapping maintenance loans will mean that the 40 per cent of students in England will graduate with up to £53,000 of debt.
Comparatively, students from more affluent backgrounds, whose parents are far more likely to be able to support them, will graduate with a significantly smaller debt. In taking a degree, lower income students are already disadvantaged in comparison to their wealthier peers. Furthermore, many of these students may have already disadvantaged themselves in order to study at all. For example, those with caring responsibilities may struggle to balance these with their studies; many students may have chosen to give up three years of paid work in order to obtain a degree. This also has a knock-on effect on the courses which students may choose to study, with many favouring career-based subjects in order to graduate on a salary which makes up for the debt accumulated throughout study. The lack of maintenance grant is an access issue, both before and during a degree course.
The removal of maintenance grants may also lead to a rise in the number of students using private “specialist” loan companies, such as Future Finance, which allow students to borrow up to £40,000 at once, with immediate repayments and up to 15% interest. These businesses are scarily akin to payday loan companies, and serve to perpetuate debt in the students who use them.
The scrapping of the maintenance grant is one in several moves by the government towards a privatised university system, similar to that of the USA. In America last year, the average student graduated with an average of $35,000 debt. Under the American system, loans are borrowed both from federal and private sources. This is not only damaging to students, but research from leading economists have shown that this system has been detrimental to the US economy. People in debt are more likely to postpone buying houses, childbirth, and other practices which are considered beneficial for the economy.
For the past year the NUS has supported students in lobbying their MPs for a debate about the issue. This debate nearly didn’t go ahead but due to pressures from student groups, it took place on Tuesday 19/1/16. Unfortunately, MPs voted down the opposition motion to oppose removal of the grants, 306 voted against the motion to 292 in favour. In the midst of the debate student activist groups in London occupied Tower Bridge, bearing banners that read “No Grants = No Bridge”. Across the country, student groups have made it clear that they will continue to oppose these limitations on our future, and campaign for a free education system.
Osbourne may have claimed that the maintenance grants are “unaffordable”, however he is not weighing this against the cost to those students who receive the grant, the British education system, and the taxpayer and overall UK economy. I think it is innumerably less affordable to sacrifice the future of a generation to the noose of debt.