Student maintenance grants
I am appalled at the Government's proposal to replace student maintenance grants with loans from 2016/17, which will adversely affect over 500,000 of the poorest students in England every year.
When tuition fees were tripled in 2012, the Government argued that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds would not be put off from entering higher education because of increased maintenance grants and the annually-uprated loan repayment threshold of £21,000.
Now maintenance grants are being abolished and the loan repayment threshold has been frozen at £21,000. This will severely impact upon the goal of widening participation in higher education. Research published last year shows that every £1,000 rise in maintenance grants increases participation in higher education by just under four percentage points.
The disparity between socio-economic groups is already stark and can be seen in my own constituency: a child born in Clifton is 6 times more likely to go to university as a child born in Lawrence Hill. People from disadvantaged backgrounds are known to be more debt-averse and this measure will provide a big obstacle to their likelihood of realising their potential. Of course, we only have a limited idea as to how significant the effect of this will be as the Government has not published the interim equality assessment on which the decision was originally based.
Which brings me to my other major concern: the lack of transparency and democracy demonstrated in this process. These proposals were not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto; there was no consultation with stakeholders; and because they are being implemented through secondary legislation, MPs will not be able to vote on them and have continually been denied an opportunity to debate them. It concerns me that the Government are attempting to drive through as many changes as possible through secondary legislation, which gives little opportunity for effective scrutiny. The freezing of the student loan repayment threshold, for example, is legally dubious, and if not illegal is at least a flagrant breach of trust.
The Government have said that this measure will ensure that ‘higher education funding is more sustainable’, yet there is no assurance that this will actually be the case. The estimate of the RAB charge, which calculates how much of their loans it is expected that students will repay, will only be updated this summer, long after the regulations have been introduced.
I will continue to follow this issue closely and work with my Labour colleagues to press the Government on the unfair and unjust nature of their approach to education.