Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister in the coalition government that trebled fees, has called the Conservatives’ decision to scrap maintenance grants “a source of great regret”.
The former Liberal Democrat leader, who famously apologised for pledging before the 2010 general election that the party would oppose any rise in fees, was speaking today at the launch of thinktank the Social Market Foundation’s Commission on Inequality in Education, a cross-party initiative examining the causes and effects of inequality in primary and secondary school-level education in England and Wales.
Although the commission, in which Mr Clegg will be a member, will not focus on higher education, the Liberal Democrat MP did comment when asked by Times Higher Education what he thought the effect of raising fees to £9,000 has had, or will have, on inequality in education.
Mr Clegg replied that figures showed that universities were now recruiting the “highest proportion of youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds” ever.
He added: “Without once again being invited to go back over all that, if you don’ t mind, the evidence is quite, quite different from all the heated accusations that were made at the time.”
But he went on to criticise the new Tory government for taking the decision to scrap all student maintenance grants, which had been awarded to poorer students on a sliding scale, and replace them with loans.
Mr Clegg said: “Those upfront living costs are often the most intimidating of all, much more important than what you pay a long time after university. That’s what I think – sorry to sound a party [political] note – is a source of great regret, that this government has changed those grants for living costs for disadvantaged families into loans.”
He suggested that maintenance grants had been a “hidden reason” why poorer students “weren’t being discouraged” from applying to university.
The commission is made up of three MPs – Mr Clegg, Suella Fernandes of the Conservatives and Stephen Kinnock of Labour – and two education experts, Sam Freedman of graduate teaching recruiter Teach First and Rebecca Allen of policy research firm Education Datalab.
Initial research conducted by the SMF for the commission suggests that where a child lives and grows up has a major effect on their educational achievement.
Forthcoming analysis will also look into the effects of gender, family income and ethnicity on inequality in education. A report on the commission’s findings will be released early next year.