Grant us our daily bread

January 27, 1995

Student Paul Morris asks for enough money to live on but no more It seems the trend among student is to jump on the Labour Party bandwagon and suggest that Tory grant policy is remarkably unfair.

However, I believe the debate is not as clear cut as all that. Student funding is obviously a problem. We are not meant to live like kings, yet enough money should be available for us to live on.

A full grant outside London is just over Pounds 2,000. Of this, nearly Pounds 1,100 is spent on rent (assuming Pounds 30 average weekly rent with half rent over holidays). This leaves Pounds 15 a week for food, about Pounds 8 a week for bills, and Pounds 5 a week for travel, leaving Pounds 8 for books and entertainment. Obviously, Pounds 8 a week is not sufficient for us to go out a couple of times a week.

So why should our grants be cut? The money we receive is from taxation and is for our upkeep. Any extra money we decide to spend is either for the odd book or for social activities.

But why should the average man or woman pay higher taxes to support a small minority at university, if the extra money raised is going on pints in the student union bar?

The majority of students come from the upper and middle classes. Is it fair then, that the working classes should be proportionately taxed to provide further revenue for student grants?

Not only is this blatantly unfair, but it puts the Labour Party in a very difficult position. On the one hand it is seen as the future for higher student funding, yet on the other, it must safeguard the interests of its traditional supporters, the working class. It is not surprising that the party is heading for compromise over student funding.

Ultimately this compromise will fail. In trying to achieve the impossible, namely the appeasement of both the National Union of Students and its traditional power base, Labour looks likely to make a "new" policy, strikingly similar to a graduate tax. What is different though about Labour thinking is that it would give graduates all their lifetimes to repay the money.

England, along with the rest of Europe, is in economic decline and has apparently been so since the start of the century. Regardless of the cause, the majority of people are finding it hard enough to make ends meet, without having to pay higher taxes. In the meantime, grants and other public expenditure have been reduced in order to increase national prosperity in the next few years. Admittedly the period will be harsh for students, as it will be for other groups, but if the country does recover, we will be among the people most likely to benefit in the future.

If an increase in grants is not the answer then what is? At the moment students who spend all their money have two choices. They can get a student overdraft facility of a maximum Pounds 400 interest free. If they can manage with this until the holidays, they then have the opportunity to gain work and repay the bank. The last option is a student loan.

Many people are sceptical of the student loan, but realistically it is a viable alternative. (After all why should we not all pay for our own drunken nights out?) The arguments are that it puts a heavy burden on students who start their working life off in debt, and also that the loan has to be paid back when you start earning a regular wage. Yet the loan must only be repaid when one earns Pounds 14,000 a year, and then only in small instalments.

It has been suggested that new housing grants could be introduced. This would have the advantage that substandard student accommodation would be improved, and undesirable landlords could be prevented from letting such property. This would reduce the 50 per cent of a student grant which is used for rent. However, the cost would outweigh the benefits. Unfortunately, I believe the demand for an increase in grants has the effect of taking the more pressing issues off the political agenda. One such issue is the calculation of parental contributions, and this is where I hear the most complaints.

Because the local education authorities assess the worthiness of each individual claim to a grant, one would hope a watertight system exists. Yet not so. If the parental income drops by 15 per cent by March, the authority will reassess the grant. However any fall in income after the March deadline, and the authority is unlikely to be sympathetic. Such rigorous guidelines become even more hazardous in cases of unemployment.

The system leaves itself open to abuse and can result in unjust decisions. There are so many loopholes that a clever accountant would be able to get Prince William a full grant. The system takes into consideration factors such as parental income and mortgage repayments. What it fails to take into account are debts such as bank loans which parents may have. Many students have suffered because of the fallibility of the system. Their parents cannot afford to make contributions at the level authorities suggest. The students then receive totally inadequate grants which lead to debt.

Grants should pay for student accommodation, food and bills. At the moment they just fulfil their function, and so should not be increased. Although students need more money for going out, this should come from overdrafts and loans.

However, if the mechanism of grant assessment is reformed, it is obvious more money will need to be made available for previously "undeserving" students. If this money is not forthcoming we run the risk of barring students, who have parents with loans, from entering higher education. Similarly, any attempt to scrap grants for student loans will have the same affect. This will be a retrograde step which should remind us how elitist the universities were 50 years ago. A return to this would be both unwise and dangerous.

Paul Morris is a third-year politics and law student at the University of Central England, Birmingham.

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