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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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories