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1 August 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 11:43am

Theresa May promised more social mobility – then the Tories scrapped maintenance grants

For all but the Oxbridge elite, the graduate earnings premium is fast becoming a myth. 

By Angela Rayner

Today Theresa May’s Tory Government scrapped maintenance grants.

Unlike Hinkley, there is no room for a pause for thought when it comes to the future of the next generation.

Maintenance grants, a proud Labour achievement which made it easier for children from lower and middle income families to go to university, have been abolished in one fell swoop. To be replaced with loans. 

Never mind that student debt in Britain is already amongst the highest in Europe. Forget that the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that the average student will graduate an astronomical £44,000 in debt. They will be paying this off well into their fifties, just as their own children might be considering university courses. 

This is inconvenient evidence, that can be easily ignored by the Tories.

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After all, they have already trebled tuition fees and frozen the repayment threshold for student debt at £21,000, going back on their word to students, who were told that the threshold would rise in line with average earnings. This means that students will have more and more debt, and spend longer and longer trying to pay it off.    

Now another hammer blow to opportunity by scrapping grants. It adds up to a triple whammy which means that the very people we should be encouraging to attend universities, will be saddled with more and more debt, simply for having the nerve to try and get the education to which they are entitled. 

So for all her fine words about “One Nation” Britain on the steps of Downing Street, Theresa May has put yet another latest cap on social mobility.

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Additional debt will fall entirely on the shoulders of children from low and middle income backgrounds, while more affluent students will be mostly unaffected. Currently, full-time students with a household income of £25,000 or less can get £3,387 a year in a maintenance grant. There are also smaller grants available for students in households earning less than £42,620 a year.

Students who would have previously been able to rely on maintenance grants will simply see their debt continue to skyrocket, which will leave them facing a huge debt burden for the rest of their working lives. 

This is a policy that the Tories were so ashamed of that they pushed it through without proper scrutiny, sneaking it through as delegated legislation so that it wouldn’t face the full scrutiny that our democracy demands. 

It took the Labour Party holding an Opposition Day Debate in January, in which we all condemned these regressive changes, to make sure this shameful policy was debated on the floor of the House. 

The timing for abolishing maintenance grants could not be more absurd. 

Only yesterday a study from the Intergenerational Foundation found that, unless you’re one of the few who goes to Oxbridge, or studies one of a very small number of subjects, as a graduate, your earnings, in real terms, will not be substantially higher than if you simply didn’t go to university. The graduate earnings premium, used by the Tories to justify many of their regressive higher education policies, is fast becoming a myth. 

And why? Because this government has saddled students with ever-mounting debt without providing the high-wage jobs that they need to pay them off. 

This move is simply the latest Tory tax on aspiration. 

It’s likely now that many potential students, who previously relied on grants for access to university, will simply not apply now due to the life-long debt they will face. 

This from a Prime Minister and Education Secretary who pledged to put social mobility at the heart of their agenda.

Yet Theresa May and Justine Greening have done nothing to reverse this regressive policy. No room here for second thoughts.  

Meanwhile, those students who gain degrees, despite the debt they face, will lose more and more of their income to pay for it. Making it more and more difficult for students to find the money to pay the bills, to get a mortgage, to start a family, to do everything this government claims to be encouraging. 

We need a sustainable system of student finance that promotes opportunity, encourages aspiration, increases social mobility and is governed by fairness. 

But all the Tories can offer is unsustainable, mounting debt, punishing students for wanting an education. And discouraging thousands of young people from climbing the ladder to a better life.