Labour must be more radical in its support for the poorest students, writes Joe Vinson
Yesterday the government launched its ‘major review of post-18 education’ which will supposedly delve deep into the broken system that governs higher education in England, offering reforms which go ‘further than ever before to deliver for young people’.
In reality, for the weeks and months ahead we are about to witness the government tie itself in knots about tuition fees and not much else. However, if Labour can succeed in clawing this review away from the realm of graduate contributions, there is a much bigger issue at stake.
For decades, successive governments have bought into the idea that students are supposed to be poor. Everyone is well versed in the clichés – baked beans on toast five nights a week, student accommodation not fit for your pet dog, and begging mum and dad to help with the bills ‘just one more time’.
Underneath the humour, the reality in 2018 is alarming. Payday lenders targeting campuses, rent payments wiping out over two thirds of a student loan for a home that is damp, dirty and dangerous, young people skipping meals because food is unaffordable, and the academic performance of our disadvantaged undergraduates slipping year on year.
Not only has the government ignored this, their policies have actively pushed many students in higher education from poor to poverty.
In the 2015 budget George Osborne scrapped the higher education maintenance grant, the only money provided to students that did not require repayment, setting undergraduates back by up to £3,387 a year. Instead, some students were given the option to make up the shortfall by adding it to their higher education student loan – saddling some of the poorest graduates with even more debt, while others lost out completely.
Even worse, the government made this change without reviewing the means testing of the very maintenance loans they claimed would give students more money than ever before in their pockets. Only the very poorest graduates are eligible to borrow the maximum amount, while everyone else is able to borrow less and less for every extra pound their parents earn.
This has led to the perverse situation in which average earning households (or the ‘just about managing’) with little cash to spare are burdened with the expectation by the system of making up the shortfall – something which is never explained to parents in the process. Moreover, even if an undergraduate’s parents understand this expectation of them, they may be simply unable to make up that shortfall or prove unwilling to do so.
Overall, our student financial support system therefore only works for the very richest households with generous parents. Those who cannot access the maximum student loan but can withdraw from the bank of mum and dad on a regular basis. Everyone else has to suffer on loans that do not meet the cost of being in higher education.
Not only is this putting students off higher education all together, the number dropping out of university for financial reasons is sky rocketing. Even the ones who stay often live in poverty or suffer academically because of the part-time work commitments they make in order to stay afloat. Higher education means testing is broken.
It makes no sense for the taxpayer either. Graduates are a crucial part of the workforce, but if they do not get the grades they deserve because they are spending more time pulling pints than acing assessments, we cannot compete on the world stage and our future tax base diminishes.
Jeremy Corbyn is right to call for the re-introduction of maintenance grants for this reason – but he should go further. Labour should pledge to increase the student financial support available to students as a whole, raising the maximum loan limit – making it available to all students regardless of their household income and ending this perverse inequality.
Ask any student and they are more concerned with the money they have in their pocket than they are about the fees they have to pay back later. Labour needs to understand this – fast.
Joe Vinson is co-chair of LGBT Labour London, and a former NUS vice president. He tweets @JoeVinson
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