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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.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.