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19 January 2016

The Conservatives’ scrapping of the maintenance grant are an opportunity tax, nothing more

This is an assault on aspiration, an assault on opportunity, and an assault on those who want to get on in life.

By Angela Eagle

When I was offered a place at Oxford I knew that I would be able to support myself financially, despite not coming from a well-off background.

This was because I received a maintenance grant, which for over 50 years have been made available to poorer students to cover living costs at university. They have provided a lifeline for generations of students, transforming the accessibility of a university education, and have ensured that young people from lower-income backgrounds do not leave university in greater debt than their better-off peers.

Last week the Tories voted to scrap maintenance grants for students from poorer backgrounds and to replace them with additional loans. Axing maintenance grants won’t bring fairness or sound public finances, put simply it’s an opportunity tax.

To add insult to injury, the Government attempted to force through these sweeping changes – which were not in the Conservative election manifesto – using legislative sleight of hand in a delegated legislation committee rather than on the floor of the House of Commons, hidden away from public scrutiny.

Maintenance grants are non-repayable grants of up to £3,387 per year for the poorest university students. They help with costs such as rent, food, energy bills and study materials. And around half a million students currently receive this vital support.

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Under the changes, maintenance grants will be scrapped and students from lower-income backgrounds will be forced to take out additional loans, saddling them with exorbitant levels of debt. They would graduate with debts of up to £53,000 – rather than up to £40,300 previously.

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In England, students from advantaged backgrounds are already more than twice as likely to enter higher education as students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Scrapping maintenance grants risks exacerbating this divide. 

The Coalition government’s decision to treble tuition fees in 2010 was accompanied by assurances that poorer students would still be able to access higher education through the provision of maintenance grants. There is now a real risk that the brightest students from poorer backgrounds will be deterred from utilising their talents and attending university by the prospect of such high levels of debt.

This is an assault on aspiration, an assault on opportunity, and an assault on those who want to get on in life.

According to the government’s own Equality Impact Assessment the changes will especially affect students from BME, disabled, older learners, women and Muslim backgrounds. And the Institute for Fiscal Studies say the change won’t improve government finances in the long-run. 

It makes a mockery of the Tories’ claim to be a ‘One Nation Party’, as they cut off vital support for half a million students from the poorest backgrounds. 

Today, Labour will hold an Opposition Day Debate and a vote on the floor of the House of Commons, to challenge the government and try and halt this regressive change. We have also tabled an an annulment motion, which if successful would torpedo the Tories’ plans.

We are clear that the Government should be doing all it can to ensure that those from the poorest backgrounds reach their full potential, whether that’s going into higher education – via university or further education institutions – or getting a good quality apprenticeship.

This regressive move by the Tories will do the opposite. Instead of investing in future generations the Tories are betraying students, and through this opportunity tax are pulling up the drawbridge for young people from less privileged backgrounds.