It was smiles all around when last month’s spending review document confirmed that the annual £2 billion saved by converting all remaining student maintenance grants into loans will count towards the saving that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is expected to make over the next five years.
But that policy, first announced in July’s Budget, remains deeply troubling. If the government wanted to put the brakes on social mobility and end the drive for widening participation without actually having to announce it, it couldn’t have done a better job.
I grew up in Margate, a well-loved but rather shabby little seaside town in an area not known for growth and prosperity, to put it politely. But, this being Kent, I was lucky enough to go to a local state grammar school, where I sat my A levels in 1997 and, in common with many of my peers, applied to university. My youngest uncle had already blazed the higher education trail for my family a few years earlier – living, as far as we could tell, on Guinness alone. My family were encouraging and offered what financial support they could – enough for food each month. The means-tested maintenance grant would take care of all those other little things it proves impossible to do without – such as accommodation.
It wasn’t a wild life, living on a grant. Every term brought anxiety as I saw how little was left for living on after I paid my landlord. But my parents helped out, and I took summer jobs. I managed.
It took me longer to be happy. Originally, I’d wanted to study medicine at the University of Manchester, but my A-level chemistry results had put the skids under that and I’d ended up studying history and archaeology at the University of Southampton. With a long-standing career plan closed off to me, I drifted through my first year, earning 2:2s for work I didn’t really care about.
I didn’t think about leaving, though: there was too much at stake. I had no way of supporting myself outside higher education, but I also felt that it was my responsibility to continue because other people had given me money to make it possible to leave home and try to make something of myself. I didn’t think of them as taxpayers at the time: just the people at the council who signed the cheques. But they were important to me: they had invested in me.
And that was the power of the grant. A grant says: “You’re worth it.” A loan says: “We can make money off you.” A grant says: “Education is valuable.” A loan says: “You, the student, are the commodity: a number in the system.” Higher education has mutated from an investment for all of us into a burden for some of us.
After my eight years of higher education, for which I am profoundly grateful, I now help undergraduates to get to grips with its discourses and demands. Working at a university that has social justice at its heart, I fear for our students, many of whom come from East London and most of whom currently receive the full grant. One of our recent female students worked two jobs to help support her younger sister. But she still had that crucial bit of security provided by her grant, helping her to put her worries about finding a job and paying back her tuition fee loan to one side and concentrate on what she was there to do: get a good degree.
My students laugh with disbelief when I tell them that my degrees didn’t cost me anything. And in a year or two, how much more disbelief will there be? Gone for ever will be that reassuring voice that says, “Yes, we believe in you. We want you to achieve your potential.” What then for higher education? Narrower participation, fewer students and crushed dreams. All in the name of balancing the books.
Carina Buckley is a learning skills tutor at Southampton Solent University.