Fees hike will restrict access

Ethnic minorities and the poor may be priced out of university. It will be a loss for them, for society and for academia, warns Nabil Ahmed

November 14, 2010

When I applied to university five years ago, I felt I had won life’s golden ticket. Despite my modest household income and ethnic-minority background, I could go to one of the UK’s best universities, with no tuition fees and only have to pay off my maintenance loan after I had finished. University did indeed change my life – I broadened my horizons and became energised about getting involved in charity work. I realised how this country continues to set academic standards globally by keeping universities accessible to all, with a student population reflecting diverse experiences and backgrounds.

But no longer. Should the coalition government’s proposals get passed in Parliament, individuals like me will stand no chance of going to university. With the upper limit for tuition fees rising from £3,290 to £9,000 per annum, and with interest no longer set at the rate of inflation but at the market rate, too many teenagers will be terrified of heavy debt, which will balloon with each passing year of study. This will particularly affect the poor and ethnic minorities.

Members of the Browne Review committee and the coalition Cabinet, which includes 18 millionaires and only one non-white member, just don’t get it. Even with an increased maintenance grant (£3,250), poorer students will still be paying fees that are at least double what they pay now, receiving no more support in real terms than in the present system. This will disproportionately affect Britain’s ethnic minorities. Seventy five per cent of Britain’s black communities live in 88 of Britain’s poorest wards. Thirty five per cent of black children live in poverty. Nearly half of Pakistani and Bengali households live below the poverty line.

Research shows that black students already take longer to pay back student debt and these communities also face an uphill struggle to access higher education. This will only get worse.

A toxic part of the problem is the proposal to charge a market rate of interest on student debts – up to 3 per cent plus inflation. Debts will inflate year on year, and again those who will suffer most are the students from poorer backgrounds. It will particularly affect Muslim students as they have a religious aversion to interest – Islam teaches that market rates of interest are a fundamentally unethical way of dealing with debt.

But the government does not want to hear about these issues. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had the audacity to state in a meeting with students in London at the beginning of this month that interest rates were “not an issue” for Muslim students, despite most Muslim students being radically opposed to interest rate hikes. Lord Browne did not respond to an approach from Muslim students and the NUS on the same issue.

The lack of consultation, the speed at which the proposals are being rushed through Parliament and the absence of any discussion about future ramifications of the funding review have destroyed the credibility of the coalition government’s proposals. This week, students from around the country marched in London because this generation refuses to allow an accessible education system to be demolished in Britain.

Muslim student representatives are particularly keen to send a message to Liberal Democrat MPs, who in recent elections have wooed Muslim communities, especially with regard to foreign policy. The arguments the MPs were making against tuition fees just a few months ago are the arguments that we students are making today. We are outraged that they are breaking their promise to vote against a fee increase. And, as we discuss the impact that Liberal Democrat MPs are going to have on education for Muslim youth, we have been relieved and inspired by the serious response of Muslim community organisations and imams.

This is about far more than just fees: principles of accessibility are being broken; poorer and black communities are being priced out of higher education; and social inequalities will be entrenched in the next generation. For British higher education to remain an intellectual powerhouse, its doors must remain wide open to able and determined Britons, not just those that can afford it.

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