Abolition of student maintenance grant 'will hurt those most in need'

Education experts say replacement of grants with loans will deter poorer students from going to university

Education experts have expressed fears that the abolition of the student maintenance grant for the poorest young people, combined with increasing tuition fees, will set back widening participation and deter those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university.

As of Monday, students from low-income homes applying to go to university will no longer be entitled to a maintenance grant to support their living costs, but will instead have to borrow the money in the form of an additional loan, further increasing their debt.

The scrapping of the grant comes as the government puts pressure on universities to widen participation rates to attract those from the poorest backgrounds – in particular white working-class boys who are the least likely group to go to university.

Higher education experts are concerned that the switch to a loan, just as universities are announcing plans to raise tuition fees beyond £9,000 a year, will damage progress in widening participation and lumber those who choose to go to university with even greater debt.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University College Union (UCU), said: “Cost does matter and there is a very real danger that raising tuition fees combined with the ending of maintenance grants will damage progress made by widening participation initiatives.”

She said recent UCU research showed that when young people choose to go to university, those from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to put cost at the forefront of their decision-making, often opting for institutions close to home that offer cheaper study that can be combined with part-time work.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University College Union.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University College Union. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Hunt continued: “The continued squeeze on students risks creating a polarised university system of haves and have-nots where costs determines young people’s choices.”

After the tuition fee increase in 2012, when fees rose to up to £9,000, critics feared that poorer students would choose not to go to university to avoid long-term debt, but contrary to those concerns record numbers of disadvantaged young people have been choosing to go to university.

Prof Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said it was impossible to know how the switch from maintenance grants to loans would affect aspiration to study but he would be watching closely for any impact.

“We do know that previous major changes to state support for students, such as the introduction of fee loans, have not had the negative impact on participation that was predicted by many people at the time and there are now record numbers of disadvantaged students entering higher education.

“That is encouraging, but I will be watching closely for any adverse effects on participation among underrepresented groups as a result of this change. If there are negative impacts on participation, I expect universities and colleges to work hard to mitigate them.

“There have been great strides made in fair access recently and, with the government setting high expectations for further, faster progress, we cannot afford to let anything slow the pace of change.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, condemned the scrapping of the grant and said graduates from English universities faced by far the highest level of debt in the English-speaking world.

“The abolition of maintenance grants means it is the poorest graduates who are getting the worst deal, with debts of over £50,000 on graduation. It is outrageous that the government has got rid of maintenance grants. It will make it harder to increase the numbers of disadvantaged students at the most selective universities and it will lumber them with massive debts,” he said.

“With the access gap at these universities still unacceptably wide, the government should be doing all it can to increase participation, not reduce it.”

Tukeer Hussain, a 17-year-old sixth-form student from Birmingham, is one of those who would have been entitled to a maintenance grant but will now have to pay back a maintenance loan.

He would like to go to university to study economics, but with the loss of the maintenance grant and increasing tuition fees he is pinning his hopes on getting a scholarship, a bursary or a company sponsorship to support his studies.

Students in an exam hall
The abolition of the grant comes as the government puts pressure on universities to bolster participation rates to attract those from the poorest backgrounds. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Hussain, a grammar school student whose grandfather came to the UK from Pakistan 60 years ago, says he is angry that those making decisions about higher education appear to be “pulling up the ladder” and making it harder for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access university.

“The scrapping of these maintenance grants is another way of stopping social mobility. I’ve got a brother in the same year who is 11 months younger than me and it’s literally getting to the point that our parents will have to choose one of us to go to university. We will have to sit down as a family and discuss who goes where,” he said.

“Even if I go to my local university and live at home, it will still cost a fortune. Among my group of friends there’s a struggle. People are not going for degrees they would like to do, but ones a career will come from. The debt will be really hard. You get a degree in anything that will get you a job.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the abolition of maintenance grants marked yet another betrayal of young people by the Tory government. “It will mean that the most disadvantaged students will end up in the most debt.

“What an appalling message to send to a generation of people whose opportunities already seem so limited by a lack of jobs.”

He promised that a Labour government would abolish tuition fees altogether and re-introduce and improve student support.

“Education is a social good - it benefits everyone in society, and it should be funded publicly. We will go further than simply reversing the cuts to education - we will break down barriers to study at every level, allowing everyone to access education and skills throughout their lives.”

The Liberal Democrat education spokesman said the scrapping of the grant was a “disgraceful move” that would hit poorer students hardest.

“For the government to argue otherwise just shows how little they understand about the challenges faced by many students from lower income backgrounds,” John Pugh said. “The government’s priority should be to continue tackling inequality in higher education but instead they are removing vital help in a move which will hurt those who need it most.”


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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