Anxious students sacrifice their poor

November 22, 1996

In as fine an example of pathetic fallacy as could be found, last Tuesday's bleak weather underlined the misery of higher education staff demonstrating in the sleet for better pay. They have, as Stuart Maclure says on this page, an overwhelmingly strong case. Unfortunately next Tuesday may see a Budget which shows that they also have an appallingly weak hand - despite a year of well-organised and co-ordinated campaigning which has united employers, staff and students.

Campaigning has now at least been put to the test. What is to be done next, if indeed the Budget is as bad for higher education as feared, will be for debate and decision after next week's announcements.

One factor which will need to be taken into account in making those decisions is what has happened to students in recent years.

In this year's campaign, staff have enjoyed strong support from student organisations. This is not surprising. There are only two ways in which higher education staff are going to get substantially better pay: by changing Government spending priorities or by getting students to pay more. Students are most anxious to avoid paying fees.

Indeed so much is the idea of fees anathema that the National Union of Students has come down in favour of replacing maintenance grants with income contingent loans, if that is the only alternative to fees as a means of releasing money for renewed expansion, fairer treatment of part-timers and further education students and better facilities and pay.

This week's survey of student finances carried out by the Policy Studies Institute for the Government suggests, however, that such a policy would cause greater hardship for the poorest students. Grants have been reduced in recent years, being progressively replaced by loans. The PSI figures show students from social classes D and E - of whom there are in any case too few in higher education - and single parents are the most heavily in debt.

These students are the most likely to qualify for maintenance grants. If those grants disappear completely or dwindle further, they would have no choice but to give up higher education or go further into debt. By contrast, richer students, who do not get maintenance grants, have lost nothing from recent policy and would not lose if grants vanished altogether. Indeed they have gained access to cheap credit which has increased the amount of money available to them while they are students.

There have been a number of studies - such as for the National Education Commission a few years ago and more recently by Maggie Woodrow, executive director of the European Access Network, and others for the Council of Europe - which show the greatest social and economic gain when students from disadvantaged backgrounds go into higher education. It is vitally important that such students are encouraged to undertake higher education rather than being put off.

It is precisely this argument in favour of wider access which is most frequently used against the idea of introducing tuition fees. This week's figures from PSI suggest however that argument is misplaced. Right now, even with tuition free and at least some grant available, less well-off students are having a harder time than others. If maintenance grants are phased out altogether, the scales would tip still further against them.

If, on the other hand, means-tested tuition charges were introduced for those students who do not now qualify for grants, and means-tested grants were retained or even improved for those with less well-off parents or who are struggling to raise a family, the balance would shift usefully in their favour.

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