On 15th January, a committee of MPs scrapped maintenance grants for university students. In place of these grants, tailored to help students with the cost of living, will be loans. While the threshold of money a student can receive has increased from a maximum of £7,434 a year to £8,200 a year (or £10,702 if you’re living away from home in London), this money will now have to be paid back once the student is earning an annual income of over £21,000. Of course, this change threatens students from low-income families the most.
The capitalist attitude of self-sufficiency has permeated Conservative manifestos since the monetarist politics of Margaret Thatcher. The Tories have extended this to university students fairly recently, under the leadership of David Cameron. This all began with the raising of tuition fees to £9000 per year in 2010. The main problem with these changes to student finance is the rapidness in which they were enacted: announced only last year, these changes were made too soon a time ago for every family to become solely dependent on their own income and savings to put their children through university. The result of this is that for the foreseeable future, ambitious students will be forced into a debt they had no other choice but to take. Surely this is not democratic.
Under the changes made both to student finance and tuition fees, the key difference between a graduate from a low income family and one from a high income family is the level of debt that they will be in. As of today, student debt doesn’t affect credit rating, meaning that it won’t reduce the opportunity to get a mortgage when the time comes to buy a house; of course, the recent cuts to housing benefits has made it harder for families to buy their own house anyway. But the good news is that these loans won’t damage opportunities in the long-run. So one could ask: what is the point in the scrapping of the grants?
Well, this is the age of austerity: the survival of the wealthiest in a once fair Britain when it came to the undiscriminating entitlement to welfare and education. It’s unclear as to whether these changes will save the government money in the long run; debts are not paid until the graduate is earning over £21,000 a year and the remaining debt after 30 years is cancelled, meaning not everyone will even pay back the money they were given. Therefore it is arguable that these loans will instead act as a deterrent, a scare-factor to curtail academic ambition. I was told to not think of the monetary aspect of university before applying, but now, a semester into my degree, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about the debt I’m going to be in. I’m sure I’m not alone in that worry.
The Tories pride themselves on being the party of working people, but their idea of work is flawed. Maybe if there were a decent national living wage, or if a significant percentage of the poorest in society didn’t have full time jobs, then Cameron and his pals could be justified in saying that they protect those who work the hardest. But it’s not the case. And even if it were the case, it’s not right to punish students for the financial situation of their parents. In light of all this, it isn’t radical to claim that the Tories do not promote hard work. Instead, they promote wealth, wealth that has been around long before academic ambition began to cost so much. The rest of us will have to hope that it all works out.
Words by Caitlin O’Connor