Bristol is a fantastic and impressive city, but scratch beneath the surface and you can see stark reflections of the inequality that plagues our society.
Figures recently reported in the Bristol Post show the bleak disparity in higher education uptake in different areas of Bristol. In the poorest ward in my constituency (Lawrence Hill), just 13.9% of young people attend university. In the wealthiest ward (Clifton), 83.8% do. This means that a child born in Clifton is 6 times more likely to go to university as a child born in Lawrence Hill. This has nothing to do with ‘ability’ – it’s about whether young people are inspired to aim high in life and given the support they need to realise their potential.
Inequality makes the whole of society worse off; it’s bad for everyone. If people from lower-income backgrounds are deterred from accessing education it means that their talents, abilities and insights are less likely to contribute to our society, economy and culture. Many industries are struggling to draw upon the diversity that so enriches our nation, to their clear detriment.
I find it disappointing that against this backdrop the Government has announced the withdrawal of student maintenance grants (to be replaced with loans). Research published last year shows that a £1,000 rise in maintenance grants increases participation in higher education by just under four percentage points. Abolishing the grants will discourage even more young people in areas such as Lawrence Hill from participating in higher education. This will have the effect of embedding patterns of inequality in our society. The deeper that inequality is entrenched, the harder it is to reverse.
Education should not be treated as a luxury which people should be financially penalised for pursuing. The prospect of being saddled with tens of thousands of pounds of debt is a powerful psychological deterrent for young people from poorer backgrounds. It is tragic that the Government does not see widening participation as a priority. I will be following this issue closely to keep track of what the impact of this measure will be.