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A country for all – except you, of course

How do we create an economy for all? By scrapping student grants. Ross Brannigan comments on the government's decision to scrap maintenance grants for English students.

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On the steps of Number 10, new Prime Minister Theresa May announced she would be working towards making a country and economy that would work for all, not just the privileged few.

Sadly, within weeks of that speech, it is arguable May has missed her first huge opportunity to live up to that promise: Continuing grants for low-income students in England.

The change, which came into force on Monday, will see grants used towards funding living costs replaced by loans. The new scheme was announced by former Chancellor George Osborne in his 2015 Budget.

May could and should have used the prerogative of a new government to cease a change implemented by the former, or at least have announced new methods of assisting the least well-off students in England.

It means that students from families earning £25,000 or less will have what was already a meagre yearly grant of over £3000 replaced by low-interest loans. And that is, of course, if interest rates stay down, which one could almost imagine a clairvoyant Brexiteer implying was a benefit of leaving the EU.

In Scotland, Scottish and EU students cannot be more fortunate just now. Introduced by Blair in 1998, following an inquiry by John Major into educational institutions’ funding, tuition fees began low and just kept rising.

Since then the cost of studying in England has rocketed, hitting £9000 at more than half of institutions, and making England the most expensive place to study in the industrialised world.

But one must step back a little from the initial fury instilled by the change. There are some legitimate areas for consideration with the introduction of loans.

Firstly, the loans will be worth over £8000 – far more than the original grant system. Secondly, there is the issue of poorer families contributing to someone’s education when they will likely earn more than them.

This latter point was one of the prime reasons for scrapping the grants in the first place. As Osborne put it: There was a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.”

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“If we don’t tackle this problem, then universities will become under-funded and our students won’t get places, and I’m not prepared to let that happen,” he added.

Funding in universities and colleges has become a serious issue in Scotland, with a number of colleges closing or amalgamating, and university budgets being cut (as has been seen at Stirling).

Nevertheless, a loan is a loan. Regardless of graduate job salaries, the jobs market is squeezed as it is, and having an £8000 maintenance loan on top of any other loans you might have taken out during your university career could seriously hamper your ambitions after graduation.

Not to mention the issues relating to mental health which can surround debt repayments.

In theory the new system sounds like a great way to plug a £1.57bn funding gap; but with the National Union of Students describing it as “disgraceful”, and academics impressing the role grants have had in encouraging low-income students to come to university, it may prove painful in practice.

1 comment on “A country for all – except you, of course

  1. Anonymous

    England has the highest attendance of all the countries in the UK for the underprivileged into University.

    The introduction of tuition fees have had literally no effect on this whatsoever, the reason being is that the loans are available to everyone and you don’t start paying them back unless you start earning over £21K – although I am not happy at all the government changed the terms so that this number doesn’t rise with average earnings – as a result the loan is not a barrier to anyone. Similarly, the grants being replaced with access to larger loans is not an issue either.

    Moreover, these loans don’t even function like loans. You can’t go bankrupt, the money that they take as a repayment is never something you see, and after 30 years they are written off completely. They don’t even effect your credit rating.

    Ironically, the worst place in the UK for the underprivileged to go to University is Scotland. This is for multiple reasons, all relating to the fact that it is free. One, is that EU students travelling to Scotland specifically for free education displace Scottish students who would otherwise get it. The other is that because the Scottish government is paying for each student, there is an effectively a much lower cap on the amount of people who can actually attend. The free tuition Scottish students enjoy is effectively a middle-class subsidy.

    If you really want to talk about a nation that is “all except you”, talk about Scotland.

    https://www.ucas.com/sites/default/files/jan-16-deadline-application-rates-report.pdf
    (Page 26 for Scotland having the lowest attendence rate, and England the highest, for the disadvantaged)

    http://www.suttontrust.com/researcharchive/access-in-scotland/

    They have found the same thing.

    I am being somewhat unfair, Scotland’s University access has improved in recent years, but from all accounts there is no reason to think that this is as a result of the tuition fees being free.

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