POVERTY LOANS: THE FORGOTTEN FIGHT?

by Alex Powell

Disclaimer: in what follows I am not suggesting that tuition fees are acceptable, nor that we should stop campaigning against further fee rises and for their complete abolition. But I think that we should put as much effort into campaigning on another, more pressing issue, which is often sidelined in the discourse around the marketisation of education. We need a maintenance loan settlement which works for all students and, crucially, higher postgraduate loans, to truly improve access to education.

The cost of living rises with time. Everyone who has lived away from home knows this. As the Brexit process rumbles on, the cost of living is likely to start rising far quicker than in recent years. Even before the referendum, maintenance loans were not keeping up with the rate of inflation, resulting in a real terms cut in the financial provisions for most students. And of course, for many people maintenance loans are already inadequate. More and more students are finding they cannot pay the rent, cannot afford to eat decently. Their study and their lives are being unacceptably disrupted by the inadequacy of maintenance provision.

The ongoing rent strike at UCL, a co-ordinated action the likes of which has not been seen in Britain for decades, is clear evidence that the problem has reached an unprecedented level. The UCL Director of estates, Andrew Grainger, was caught on tape saying ‘We do not set out rents on the basis of the least well off students… some people simply cannot afford to study in London and that is just a fact of life.’ Yes, current provisions are woefully inadequate for many students and only getting worse, but this is not a ‘fact of life’. It is a choice made by universities and the government, a choice which prices many people out of continuing their education.

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UCL Rent Strikers. Credit: Evening Standard

The recent decision to replace maintenance grants with further loans, which disproportionately affects students from poorer backgrounds, was a hammer blow to social mobility, and we should continue to stringently oppose it.  However, we must remember that those coming from the least well-off backgrounds are not the only students oppressed by the present loans system. The management of the link between parental household income and the amount available to students as a loan is seriously flawed. The funding formula assumes that a higher household income straightforwardly equates to parents’ greater ability to support their children’s studies, but this is often not the case. This does not take into account a number of important mitigating factors, such as the difficulties faced by households that are supporting more than one student. When the means testing apparatus are so flawed, every student is negatively affected, whatever their background.

Postgraduate students often get forgotten in discussions about student finance. We must buck this trend. The struggles of postgrads are very real and a uniquely important part of the broader student movement. There have been some steps forward recently: from this year, postgraduate loans have been made available to masters students as well as those studying at a higher level, providing a welcome alternative to more perilous bank loans. I myself am a current beneficiary of these loans. But here the means testing process is even more questionable – all masters’ loans are capped at £10,000, regardless of parental income. Students on these loans therefore still depend on a family with the means and will to support them, or on working a substantial number of hours alongside their degree. They are certainly not the revolution in access to postgraduate education that we need.

We should always be looking at ways we can materially improve the situation of students

So, what is to be done? I propose a shift of focus. Alongside campaigns against tuition fees, we must work to ensure that maintenance loans are put at a level which continues to make higher education (of every level) accessible to all. This needn’t mean abandoning existing campaigns, and it certainly doesn’t mean accepting the premise that heaping students with thousands of pounds of debt is a viable and justifiable policy. We should always be looking at ways we can materially improve the situation of students, and securing a maintenance loan system which actually allows students to have a decent standard of living is the best way to do this.

To achieve this, we need to work together. We need to realise that the same logic is being applied to all groups within higher education. The logic of the flawed means testing system which leaves so many unable to meet their basic needs is the same as the logic which saw the shift from grants to loans for the least privileged among us. It is a logic which abandons the central premise that education is a social good, that we all benefit from one another’s different experiences and areas of expertise – and it must be defied on every level.

Featured image via Uni101

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