Student debt, two words that I’m sure make most of you physically recoil, will soon take on even more monstrous proportions for students from poorer backgrounds. Come September this year, students coming from families earning less than £42,000 p.a. will no longer receive maintenance grants but loans instead. It appears the last vestige of the ideal of free higher-education is being dismantled; folkloric are the days when university wasn’t synonymous with working oneself into a gibbering, debt addled wreck, fetishizing the salvation of a highly paid job.
Students have taken to the streets, placards are plastered with similar slogans to those we saw in 2012 and megaphones are again demanding ‘free education.’ Some of you may no doubt have been incensed to take part in a demonstration on this issue; some of you may have signed a petition, or some of you may be thinking the same thing as me: ‘free education’ has relatively little to do with a maintenance grant. Grants are there to help students pay for living, not their tuition. It is vital, before we all get stuck in to some good old-fashioned Tory-baiting, to question the logic of dishing out maintenance grants. They base themselves upon the assumption that every student’s parents or carers are willing to fund their children’s lives well after those children turn into adults. They force us to concede that the only reason parents don’t give their grown up offspring money is because they physically can’t.
If we accept that, we find ourselves acknowledging that higher education, on principle, can never be ‘free.’ If students really are as feckless as this logic constructs them to be, families with incomes of over £42,000 p.a. will simply have to continue paying ‘fees’ if they want to ensure their adult offspring are funded as well as the government funds students of poorer upbringing. We have to then presume that every student has a parent-child relationship that allows him or her to ask for mum and dad’s money. Of course the reality is that many students without grants don’t get help from anyone; their parents, sensibly enough, have decided that they shouldn’t need to pay to ‘maintain’ someone old enough to get a job and live on their own.
the reality is that many students without grants don’t get help from anyone; their parents
Such students, upon leaving the nest, receive a loan from Student Finance to help with rent and seek employment in the summer and perhaps during the term in order to feed themselves and occasionally gain entry into a nightclub. If you wish to do something, like live away from your parents, but don’t have the means to do it, you get a loan. The suggestion that one is entitled to be given, not lent money to do such a thing, deserves more interrogation than it’s currently receiving from complainants. Despite what the spectacle of white dreadlocks and Corbynite placards around Westminster might suggest, this policy of giving a lot of money to one set of young able bodied adults and giving nothing to the other isn’t actually the hallmark of social equality.
Megan Dunn, the President for the National Union of Students, believes that cutting maintenance grants could ‘risk putting many people off applying for university.’ She’s not wrong. Free money is a good incentive to do anything, and if maintenance grants are taken as loans, thousands of students will graduate with over £53,000 worth of debt. That’s a lot of money to pay off. £26,000 of that sum however, would be spent on your food, bed and lifestyle, things people with reasonable employment prospects don’t normally get for free. It is surely the other sum of £27,000 spent on tuition that demands our continued attention, especially given that the government is now planning to allow universities to increase tuition fees.
In any case, there’s nothing to say all students ‘helped’ by their parents aren’t borrowing from them. They will graduate with the same £53,000 to repay. The argument I assume Megan Dunn is trying to make is that student grants represent an effort to facilitate intergenerational social mobility. The free £10, 161 available to young people from poorer families aims to make university eventually cost less for them. Such aspiring students are encouraged to go into further study, get better jobs and salaries than their parents and scale the socio-economic ladder. Good times. Feudalism is dead. Jesus is smiling.
However, at the risk of sounding like I’m on the government’s pay roll, can the opportunity to navigate an academic pathway not present itself in the form of a large, interest free maintenance loan? Isn’t that an incentive enough? Why is it necessary to give an independent adult over £10,000? Poorer young people who don’t go to university and choose to instead get a job don’t get free money in the name of social mobility. These issues are only exacerbated by evidence that the ‘household income’ method is infuriatingly flawed, resulting in a misdirection of government spending as much as a promotion of social mobility. I shall give you some specific examples, sadly lifted from reality, of how the system fails:
If you happen to live with your divorcee mother, who earns under £25,000 p.a., but your father is a millionaire, your mother’s income goes on the student grant application. Your dad then gives you money while you are at uni, buys you a nice flat in Kensington, and you use the giant grant you’ve received to shop at Wholefoods and go on a few holidays in the summer. 42% of marriages end in divorce these days by the way. Equally, your parents could be rich enough to retire.
These issues are only exacerbated by evidence that the ‘household income’ method is infuriatingly flawed
With enough savings and pension money to buy you a new Fiat 500, their lack of ‘income’ still means you get free money from the taxpayer. Crucially, ‘household income’ fails to judge how equipped parents are to help their children. It accounts neither for the debts a family may have to pay, nor other children they may have to sustain. Your parents may collectively earn £42,500 p.a., but the needs of your four younger siblings mean they are simply unable to fund your adult life. On the other hand, you might be an only child with parents who are able and willing to fund you through university. Their £30,000 income means you’re eligible for nice a grant; you can scrap earning your own money this summer whilst your flatmate with four siblings serves you at the supermarket checkout.
So before, in response to these cuts, you burn an effigy of George Osborne cackling at the poor, consider what you actually mean when you complain. In being students we fill an odd social capacity. Are we adults? Independent? Are we still our parents responsibility? According to maintenance grants, we should theoretically remain under the jurisdiction of our parents until we graduate. If they can, our parents should be feeding and watering us, if they can’t then the taxpayer should chip in to help. I would suggest the transitional phase from child to student/adult probably occurs at around 18,19/ 20 years old- or for most students, the first year of university.
The Child Benefits system in this country seems to suggest the same thing. A parent can receive monetary help to look after a child under 20, provided the child stays in approved education or training. Doesn’t that contradict the practice of distributing student grants of £3,387 per year? Parents are given the means to care for children until they’re 20; after that, fair enough, you’re on your own. Generous loans are what should enable you to live the life you need to away from home. If you are passionate about social mobility, a great thing to be, well I respect that; even if it’s a slightly selective, eugenically orientated way to go about it, by all means fight for the continuation of maintenance grants for clever people. But I urge you, next time you hear a student protester say ‘I definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford to go away to Uni without a grant’, remember three things.
Firstly that they’re lying; the proposed loan of the same or a larger sum would clearly allow anyone to go away to University. Secondly, remember the story of our rich student with divorced parents, sitting in his flat in Kensington, snorting coke through a £50 note provided kindly by the taxpayer. And lastly, remember those thousands of 18 to 22 year old students who, considered independent adults by their families, don’t get given money by anyone. They rely on loans and jobs. Unsurprisingly, you might find their faces missing at student demonstrations against maintenance cuts, and not just because they’re probably working.