Cameron claims the Conservatives are the party for the young. Students, on the whole, loudly beg to differ in the face of recent education cuts and fee rises. Today, Emily Hawkins listens to the thoughts of students and union representatives on these government changes and the campaigns against them.
The government argues education cuts will benefit young people more in the long-term, and that the impacts of cuts on students from poorer backgrounds will be offset by a larger loan to supplement living costs. Research published by the NUS this summer does negate this however, and they reported that 35% of university students would not have pursued a degree if they had not had access to the maintenance grant.
Rose McKenna, the Vice President of Academic Representation at Edge Hill University explained how the proposed changing of the grants system to a loan one would be detrimental to lower-income students. She said, “Edge Hill has a Widening Participation agenda, and around 70% of our student body are from Widening Participation backgrounds (being carers, disabled students, parents, students from low income background etc). These are the students that will be hit hardest with the replacement of maintenance grants with loans, these are the kinds of students that we will see less and less entering higher education. Under these changes some students will graduate with over £50,000 worth of debt, and whatever your background, this level of debt may make many think twice about whether Higher Education is even an option for them anymore.”
The picture seems to be the same across the country: Student Officers at King’s College recently released a statement expressing their displeasure at the government decision, urging them to consider “the devastating effects it will have on working class students and their access to Higher Education,” whilst the University of Oxford’s Student Union President Becky Howe said to the press that the move was “completely unfair and unacceptable.”
Research published by the NUS this summer found that 35% of university students would not have attended if they did not have access to a grant. I spoke to a few sixth-form students, looking towards starting university in September as the first cohort of students affected by this change. As some Whippersnapper readers may know, studies have shown that whilst students are still going to university in roughly the same numbers, after tuition fees were increased in 2011, more students feel under-pressure at university and anxious about the prospect of debt after graduating. The sixth-formers I talked to about grant cuts reinforced this; 18 year old Anna Townhill told me that while it “hasn’t ultimately affected my desire to go to uni”, she feels worried about the prospect of her living costs while at university, saying that “every penny I spend I’ll be paranoid as I have to pay it back once I earn ‘enough.’”
University should be a prospect that excites and inspires students, and yet it has increasingly triggered feelings of anxiety and guilt for many applicants caused by the seemingly ever-growing price tag. Haafiza Noor recalls her family panicking and starting to make financial sacrifices after hearing of the cuts to grants , “so I feel kinda guilty about going to uni.”
Yes, it is true that the available maintenance loan available to low-income students will be extended. However this is objectively unfair, and burdens poorer students with more debt post-university. 17 year old Ellie Gallagher explained how despite understanding she wouldn’t need to worry about living costs with the loan, “the thought of having 30k in debt is really daunting.” Ellie also said that her university decision had been swayed by her firm university’s offer of a £3,000 scholarship for students in a low-income bracket, not wanting finances to be a concern for her mother, a single parent. Money should never distort a young person’s desire for further education, an essential human right.
At the moment, around 500,000 university students in England receive the grant, which is means-tested on the basis of parental income. Haafiza, who applied to university this year, said to me; “It’s pretty damn heartless for people who don’t actually have the proper support network that I do. While I have a loving family who will make sacrifices to make sure I can still go to uni, loads of kids don’t. My sister was homeless in sixth form, but managed to get into Cambridge. She was able to go because those maintenance grants supported her.”
The student campaign against the cuts involved encouraging students to write to their MPs, a Free Education protest in London in November, and asking young people to use hashtags such as #CuttheCosts and Labour Students’ #WithoutGrants. One tweet by Sarah Freestone reads “My grant was massively important in getting me to come back to uni this year, #withoutgrants me and many others wouldn’t be in university.”
However, the decision was ultimately made by a select committee, and not voted upon in the House of Commons. Sixth-former Ellie was disappointed by this announcement made in January: “Something as important as university financing shouldn’t be decided on behind closed doors without any debate. It just feels secretive and undemocratic.” Anna also said, “such major decisions which affect hundreds of thousands of young people should have a chance to be questioned and challenged.”
The trend of turning higher education into a commodity is detrimental to young people from low-income backgrounds, who from the age of 17 will view a university degree as something to be dreaded, something that has a huge risk attached to it. Cameron says he wants to leave Downing Street with Britain being a place of more equal opportunity for young people. But how can he follow through on his rhetoric when cutting grants alienates the poorest students from the university system and make their lives more difficult?