Reductions in the maintenance grant to poorer students are imminent. A BBC Newsnight report suggests that cuts in grants are inevitable. Disadvantaged students should beware.
True, we have heard such scare mongering before: the tuition fees hike five years was meant to put the poorest students off university. Instead there are more disadvantaged pupils in higher education than ever before.
Maintenance grants are a big reason why increasing fees didn’t lead to a fall in university applications. When fees increased so did grants, which are much more important than tuition fees to poorer students. Without adequate grants, disadvantaged students can’t afford to go to university no matter what tuition fees are. So poorer students are far more likely to go to university in England, with £9,000 tuition fees and a decent system of maintenance grants, than in Scotland, where fees are non-existent but grants are inadequate.
But the need to cut £450 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ budget means that remarkable improvements to university access in the last decade – since 2006, entry rates for disadvantaged pupils to university have soared by 61 per cent – could now be endangered.
As Les Ebden, the Director of the Office for Fair Access, made clear when I interviewed him recently, maintenance grants are critical for disadvantaged students. “Relatively little attention has been paid to them compared to fees – I think they’re incredibly important psychologically,” Ebdon told me. “The advantage of maintenance grants is they conform to the principles of good student funding: they’re predictable, you’ve got a clear line of sight and you get the money when you need it.”
And the proposals might not even do anything for the government finances in the long-term. They are not about saving money so much as expediently meeting George Osborne’s plan to make budget deficits illegal. Reducing grants would reduce government spending and the deficit. But here’s the thing: the grants would switch to becoming maintenance loans, which wouldn’t count towards current spending but would add to government debt. The switch could cost as much as it saves.
There are ways that damage could be mitigated. Maintenance loans could be increased by more than maintenance grants are cut, meaning students would have more money while studying; all grants for pupils from households earning under £25,000 could be protected, with savings coming from converting grants to loans for students from households earning £25,000 to £42,000. It would also be far better for social mobility to increase tuition fees (giving a portion of the increase to the government rather than all to universities) and protect grants.
So the risk of the government’s proposals is clear. To satisfy artificial political requirements, disadvantaged students risk being put off from applying to university: a depressing way indeed for a ‘One Nation’ government to begin its term.