In a summer budget that dismayed students across the country, chancellor George Osborne announced that the treasury will scrap university maintenance grants.
And the change, which comes into effect in the 2016/17 academic year, will hit poorest students hardest.
Currently, students from families with annual incomes of £25,000 or less get a full grant of £3,387 a year towards university living costs. More than half a million students in England receive this maintenance grant paid for by the taxpayer, at a total cost of £1.57bn a year.
Delivering the first Tory Budget since 1996, Osborne said the cost of maintenance grants was set to double to £3bn in the next decade due to the cap on student numbers being lifted. Defending the decision to cut the grants, Osborne said to “ensure universities are affordable to all students from all backgrounds we will increase the maintenance loan available to £8,200, the highest amount of support ever provided.”
“There’s also a basic unfairness of asking taxpayers to fund the grants of people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.”
Whereas the grants were not repaid, the new maintenance loans will be. Graduates will start paying the loans back when they earn over £21,000 a year. Osborne declared that this “major set of reforms” would make sure Britain continued to have the top universities in the world.
On top of this, Osborne threatened that tuition fees could rise with inflation above £9,000 from 2017/18, at least for institutions which offer high-quality teaching.
Scrapping maintenance grants will therefore come as a huge blow to aspiring students across the country. A devastating report by the Higher Education Committee, published last year, has already estimated that 73 percent of all students will be unable to pay off their loans after 30 years, when debts are automatically wiped.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think tank, the average student debt is set to rise to £44,015 – higher even than in the US.
Cat Turhan, president of Warwick University’s Student Union, thinks the new loans equate to sending the poorest students a bill for an extra £8,200.
Speaking to The Right Dishonourable, Turhan said that “maintenance grants are often vital for the students who need them. Getting rid of them will act as yet another financial barrier to university.” In response to Osborne’s comments, she added:
“Getting young people to a place where they are earning more and spending more benefits everyone. This budget has targeted the poorest people in society, including the poorest who wish to access university. That, to me, is basic unfairness.”
These sentiments echo those of Megan Dunn, president of the National Union of Students, who told The Independent that the new move would “affect where students choose to live and which courses to take”, and warned that it could result in less qualified graduates as new students will start “applying for shorter courses to reduce costs”.
Less than 24 hours after the announcement an online petition protesting the announcement has reached nearly 23,000 signatures and continues to rise. With student unions around the country releasing statements criticising the governments new policy, further protests are sure to follow.
You’d think the Conservatives might have learnt to leave students alone after tuition fee rises led to the party headquarters being attacked in 2010. But perhaps the Tories aren’t worried about the repercussions – they probably think billing the poorest students close to an extra £9,000 again will mean those pleb students can’t afford a bus to London…
Header Image – Students Protest at Conservative HQ in 2010 by Simon Patterson