We have known for some time that this year would again prove to be tough for the 7 million students in colleges and universities across the UK who are finding it harder than ever to get by and get on.
In the run-up to the government’s emergency Budget this week, those fears were ever present, but it was only following George Osborne’s announcement last Wednesday of his true intentions did the scale of the damage become evident. So when the chancellor rose to his feet in the House of Commons with a giveaway worth millions for his affluent friends, he also gave a clear message to those young people looking to the future: he does not intend to value their potential or their commitment to their education in this Parliament.
It is blindingly obvious that if Osborne gets his way and maintenance grants are replaced with loans, the impact will be detrimental to hundreds of thousands of the poorest students studying in England. In addition, destroying the promise of education by further slashing adult learning and further education means only one thing: letting down the future talent of this country and writing off the most vulnerable.
Replacing grants with loans doesn’t put more money back in students’ pockets in the long term, it simply saddles many with crippling debt. We know that it will be a deterrent for the part-time students, student carers and student parents who don’t know whether they can afford to keep the electricity on from one day to the next, but who are working hard to pursue their education for a better future for themselves.
Nor should we underestimate the huge effect this might have on participation rates of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The fact is that poorer students will need to borrow more, so they’ll end up with more debt for longer than those who start their education with more money, and the choices they can make are once again reduced. This is a calculated, regressive move by the government, but it is my belief – and that of students across this country – that education must be accessible for everyone, and that maintenance grants are therefore a necessity, not a luxury.
We must also recognise that the pain goes beyond higher education. Students are being priced out across the board, in colleges, sixth forms and adult learning centres. Many are just trying to scrape together enough money to pay the bills, or to buy something to eat. Meanwhile apprentices are still trying to get by on a wage that is less than £3 an hour, even after the National Union of Students secured an increase in the minimum wage for apprentices with the National Society of Apprentices. For our poorest students, every day is a struggle. The government talks about valuing apprenticeships; but to value apprenticeships you have to show that you value apprentices.
For too long, we have continued to hear stories of students living in rat-infested houses, having to sleep in corridors and not being able to afford to eat more than one meal a day. It is almost as if the reality of student poverty has just become a running joke – fodder for sketches in TV comedy programmes and parodies about students living on beans. But it is not funny: the rising day-to-day costs that students face are a national scandal that must be addressed.
This government has no answer and no message to students who are struggling to survive. It continues to ignore the impact that saddling an entire generation with debt will have. Our message to the government is simple: cut the day-to-day costs students face. Don’t cut our future.
Megan Dunn is president of the National Union of Students