Changes to student grants announced in the 2015 budget have now come into effect, scrapping the previous maintenance grants for those from the lowest income households and replacing them with loans. The move will leave those from the poorest backgrounds with the highest amounts of debt post-graduation, forced to begin their working life with more debt than ever before. The rational behind the grant was that it would be offered to those without any possibility of receiving parental support financially – the tiniest of helping hands for those who need it the most. It was a small gesture from the government that said, amidst all the other barriers to higher education, ‘we understand that you need this. We agree that you should be at university.’ Removing it is a kick in the teeth, a message that says exactly the opposite.
When I leave university this summer, I will do so with £33,000 of debt. It would be £22,000 more, were it not for my grant, and a tuition fee discount. I’ll never forget the feeling of filling out my financial registration on MyCampus, ticking the box to say that I was liable for £19k in tuition fees. What it was like signing my first lease for a flat I wasn’t sure I could afford, trying not to cry as the landlady passed me the pen. All the hours I spent after A Level results day, celebrations overshadowed by sitting with pen and paper, trying to work out if it was financially doable. I’m often dismissed by friends and family whenever the subject of student loans arises. ‘Isn’t it all paid for anyway?’ ‘You won’t even have to pay it back til you’ve got a good job.’ ‘It’s not like it’s real debt.’
This attitude has been perpetuated by the government, and fails to recognise the deep seated wariness of debt that exists in many working class families. Children in households where money is tight often grow up with the mantra ‘you don’t borrow what you don’t have’ becoming as deeply ingrained as ‘don’t talk to strangers’. Imagine then, aged 18, signing a form that you don’t totally understand, knowing that you’re making a commitment to borrow a figure four times as large as your household income. When nobody has done it before you, when you don’t have the safety net of parents who could help if things go wrong, how then do you find the guts to do it?
Supporters of scrapping the grants like to repeat George Osborne’s claim that it’s unfair to ‘give’ money to those who will potentially go on to be some of the highest earners in society. This Tory ‘something for nothing’ rhetoric suggests we are talking about students who will live the high life through their university years, and then waltz into a 40k graduate job, the whole time living off ‘free’ money from the taxpayer’s purse. But all kinds of public sector jobs require a degree: this is the next generation of teachers, nurses, social workers, doctors, who, if they have the audacity to be poor, will now be pushed even further behind the starting blocks. Those who graduate into these professions will now have to pay back even more, amidst pay freeze after pay freeze, for even longer.
As an English Literature student, the most common question I get asked is ‘what job will you get with that?’ Like it or not, job prospects are of crucial importance. When you commit to several years of little income and lots of debt; ultimately, you need to know that it will be worth it. We are already seeing a lack of working class voices in the arts, in journalism, in any industry where work isn’t guaranteed, and even unpaid internships are hunted down by hundreds of applicants. Removing the grant and increasing the debt is only going to exacerbate this: there will be a drive towards ‘safe’ degrees that lead to safe jobs, a shift to ‘practicality’ over passion.
The most painful aspect of this is that the decision is so deeply ideological. It has been carefully designed by the Conservatives to consolidate right-wing ideals, to ensure that academic institutions will permanently look and sound like they do. But by squandering the potential of working class students, they deny the country of an educated workforce. Our future film-makers, architects, engineers, scientists are all being stifled by the Tory cleansing of our universities.
Osborne called the existence of grants a ‘basic unfairness’. I think back to my own university application and I wonder if I would have had the guts to tick the box, sign the forms, had I not been guaranteed that tiny helping hand of the maintenance grant - the one that reassured me that people like me belonged.
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