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18 October 2016

A government serious about social mobility would bring back maintenance grants

Low and middle-income students have lost a vital source of support. 

By Angela Rayner

The Prime Minister and her Cabinet spent their conference trying to convince the country that they are planning to build a country that works for everyone. 

Today, they have made it clear that they will do no such thing. 

The Tories have just voted by 11 to 8 against an amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that would have reversed the cuts to maintenance grants, giving vital support to students from low and middle income backgrounds. 

The cut was made by the former Chancellor during the 2015 budget, when he slashed the grant, worth up to £3,387, and replaced it with a yet another loan. 

This change was widely condemned at the time by think tanks, students and other groups and Labour forced a debate in Parliament on this issue that the Government tried to avoid. 

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Today, the Government had a chance to reverse that. By voting through our amendment that would reverse the cut, they had a chance to show they were serious about social mobility and access to education by helping students meet the rising costs of living they face at university. 

Surely in a country that works for everyone ensuring that everyone has access to an excellent education should be the first priority of any government? 

It would certainly be the first priority of a Labour government. That’s why we announced over the summer that we would bring back the maintenance grant, and bring back EMA for students in further education. This has been fully costed, and would be paid for by only a 1.5 per cent increase in corporation tax, and would benefit over a million students and young people. 

It is hugely disappointing that they have not done so. 

Countless students have said to me that they relied on the maintenance grant to help them get through university. To refuse to support those young people, in the face of all the evidence which demonstrates that it will improve social mobility and access to education is not only unforgiveable, but seems to show a concerning pattern in how the new government approaches education policy. 

Whether its grammar schools or maintenance grants, this government seems to look at what would improve social mobility, and then does the opposite. 

After all, the Department for Education’s own figures show that, since tuition fees were trebled by the Conservative-led Coalition in 2012, the proportion of state-educated pupils going on to university has plummeted. This is hardly surprising when you consider that students now face an average debt of £44,000, one of the highest debt burdens faced by graduates anywhere in the world. 

The change made to maintenance grants will only make a bad situation worse, and the burden will be felt most of all by those from disadvantaged backgrounds. To make those young people take on additional debt simply to pursue the education they need and deserve, is nothing less than a Tory tax on aspiration.

The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that they expect the abolition of the maintenance grant to “have negative effects on participation for the poorest students”.

If the Conservatives were truly committed to putting social mobility at the heart of their agenda, and building a country that works for everyone, they would understand that this is utterly unacceptable. They would understand that those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds should receive the most support from their government, but under the Tories, all they get is more debt. 

Building a country that worked for everyone was supposed to be about supporting ordinary working class families, which is exactly what Labour’s plan to bring back the maintenance grant would do. The test for this government was how their policies would impact those who are just getting by. 

Today they faced that test for the first time, and it is a test they have failed spectacularly. 


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