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Changing grants to loans will hit the poorest students

The sums don't work - and the losers are students, argues James Elliot.

Can you imagine a system where the poorer your parents are, the more debt you have to pay off after university? That’s exactly what George Osborne announced in last week’s budget, with the proposal to abolish maintenance grants for students from the poorest families and to replace them with loans.

The logic of the grants and loans system is that the more your parents earn, the more they will contribute to your living costs while you study. That isn’t true for students with parents can contribute but don’t, and it is unbearably difficult for students who have strained relationships with their family, particularly LGBT youth, because their parents make support conditional on accepting their values. But until yesterday, that was the system. Deeply flawed - but nonetheless keeping the pretence of being ‘progressive’.

Now students whose families earn less than £25,000 will have their £3,387 a year maintenance grant converted into a loan, and this is tapered off up to those who earn under £40,000 a year, who will have their £547 grant converted into a loan, from 2016-17. The perversity of this system is that the richer your family, the less you need in loans, but the poorer you are, the more money you have to take out as a loan, plus interest. That interest, accrued over time, is effectively a charge on the student for being from a low-income family.

Coupled to this announcement on grants is the news that fees will be allowed to rise in some institutions, in return for ‘teaching excellence’. Osborne’s budget document set out that measures to improve teaching will include, “allowing institutions offering high teaching quality to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with a consultation on the mechanisms to do this.”

This is Osborne’s confirmation of what higher education analysts and students have been worried about. That Jo Johnson’s new “Teaching Excellence Framework” is going to be used a justification to introduce higher fees. Johnson deleted lines from his original speech at UUK about ‘financial incentives’, but Osborne has made it clear in the budget this means fees. John Morgan of the Times Higher Education has made an educated guess that a fee rise will be delayed until after ‘English Votes for English Laws’, which would make sneaking a fee rise through for English universities much easier.

Johnson will outline his ‘TEF’ in a Green Paper in the autumn, usually a precursor to primary legislation that will be necessary in the event of a fee hike. The TEF, based on the ‘Research Excellence Framework’, will use a set of what Johnson calls ‘outcome-focused metrics’, as yet undefined, to rank universities on the basis of teaching quality.

Johnson has already said that he plans to, “assess the employment and earnings returns to education by matching Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Education education data with HMRC employment and income data and Department for Work and Pensions benefits data.” This means that the ‘outcome-focused’ metrics will probably be graduate earnings.

The driving forces behind these policies, along with those of the cuts to Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from 2016/17, are partly financial and partly ideological. Namely, they are a market-worshipping response to a financial problem for a government unwilling to stump up the cash to pay for Higher Education. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which Universities sits under, has been asked to find another £450m of cuts, while student numbers are increasing and vice-chancellors pay packets evade any belt-tightening.

Underlying all this is the failure of BIS to get its numbers right on student loans. The ‘RAB Charge’, which measures the percentage of student loans that are not repayed, hit 45 per cent a year ago, meaning the £9,000 fee system cost just as much to the Treasury as the old £3,000 system, and could end up costing more.

Rather than following in the footsteps of Germany by abolishing fees and properly funding education through general taxation, the Tories are continuing on the road to the recommendations of the 2010 Browne Report, which was to remove the cap on tuition fees altogether, shift all funding onto the student in the form of fees and loans, and let the market rule in a privatised university sector.

This budget takes us closer to that, telling students they will pay more in fees, and that the poorer their family are, the more debt they will have to pay off for maintenance. Meanwhile teachers are told that unless those same students get high-paying jobs afterwards, then their teaching will be considered of low quality. This isn’t Willetts’s “students at the heart of the system”, nor is it Johnson’s “teaching at the heart of the system” - this is profit at the heart of the system, and we will pay the costs.

 

James Elliott is on the NUS National Executive Council and an organiser for the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts.

James Elliott is Deputy Editor at Left Futures. He tweets @JFGElliott.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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