Over the past decade, students in England have been subjected to a barrage of reforms that have made their lives worse. It started in 2012, when the coalition government’s decision to allow universities to triple tuition fees to £9,000 a year came into effect. It continued with the scrapping of maintenance grants in 2016, and ministers’ failure to address student accommodation costs, which have rocketed by 60% since 2011.
Now, in a long-awaited response to the 2019 Augar review of post-18 education, Boris Johnson’s government is proposing more changes that have flown under the radar – and we can’t let it get away with them.
As part of the plans, announced by the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, on 24 February, it wants to introduce minimum entry requirements to stop students who don’t get a pass in English and maths GCSEs or 2 Es in A-levels from accessing student loans. It says social mobility is not achieved by pushing young people into university, but this completely misses the point. The proposals will hold back those who struggle with certain academic subjects, but whose talent will shine in a specialised area later on in their educational journey. How many graduates do we know who wouldn’t have been able to go to university because they didn’t meet these arbitrary targets? It won’t be young people on country estates who suffer the effects, but those from council estates.
It is part of an ideological, regressive and immoral pack of measures, which amount to an attack on opportunity. The plan to cap student numbers for courses determined to be of “low quality” – which would limit the number of students able to take courses not deemed economically lucrative – is nothing more than a cover for clipping the wings of students’ dreams.
That’s not all. Alongside a cost-of-living crisis, which former government ministers are telling us will create the most difficult economic year we’ve seen in a lifetime, the Tories want to burden students with an extra £54,000 of debt. From 2023, they want to reduce the salary threshold at which future graduates repay student loans to £25,000, and to extend the length of the student loan repayment term from 30 to 40 years. With inflation already over 5%, household energy bills expected to hit £4,000 by the end of 2022 and incomes facing their largest decline since the 1970s, it is beyond belief that they are trying to make higher education more expensive. Not only are they attacking current undergraduates who will be entering an increasingly costly world, but they are disincentivising education – a public good that serves all of society.
When has forcing millions of young people into debt for the rest of their lives been a smart economic model? Students have been an afterthought throughout the pandemic, but this is a new low. Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, was right – students deserve better.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that it can’t be that bad. They must have offered a sweetener to make things more manageable? Sadly not. For all the review’s flaws, Augar made clear that any higher education reforms must be introduced alongside reintroducing maintenance grants for poorer students. Not once did the government refer to this when it announced its plans last month.
Radical change is needed, and thousands demanded it during the student strike. I’ve been so proud to be a part of rebuilding our movement during the almost two years that I’ve been the National Union of Students’ vice-president for higher education. As I prepare to hand over the reins to our next team of officers, it feels like the NUS has refound its proudly radical roots in its centenary year.
There is still so much to fight against. We will continue to oppose this government’s ideological, regressive and immoral attacks against students. Recent announcements have made it clear that we need something completely different. We must allow ourselves the space to push for an alternative: a system that is fully funded and accessible for everyone. The student strike this month was the start of this journey, but it certainly won’t be the end.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is the higher education spokesperson at the National Union of Students