Maintenance grants should not be scrapped

– Originally published in Palatinate (Comment), July 2015 – In this budget the threshold at which inheritance tax is paid was raised considerably and time was called on maintenance grants for the poorest. In my eyes, this shows how harsh a government that claims we are all in it together can be.

My view may be unpopular, especially among those who vote Conservative, but I feel that it is important to do all we can to improve social mobility. Making people take on even more debt just to attend university can only hinder them. For those in often challenging financial positions, university is already an expensive enough experience.

From the perspective of those agreeing with the move, the added debt is insignificant. After all, it won’t start to be paid off until a person is earning £21,000 per year and is wiped away thirty years down the line. However, as research by the Sutton Trust suggests, fewer people will pay off their student debt than under the previous system. On average, today’s graduates will repay more money than their older counterparts. Student debt has become a noose around our necks, that can only be removed by reaching middle age or earning a hefty wage.

Replacing maintenance grants with loans will add approximately £10,000 to the student debt of the poorest. In the case of those from disadvantaged backgrounds especially, this is a large enough sum to affect their choices. Personally, if the maintenance grant had not been available I would likely have chosen to study at Newcastle University as I could have lived at home. Attempting to mitigate the debt burden that would follow me at the end of university was a significant factor in my choice of university.

Here is another statistic from research by the Sutton Trust. Children with parents in professional jobs are around three times more likely to enter a ‘high status’ university than those with working class parents. Scrapping maintenance grants will reduce the opportunity for those who may not have had the most fortuitous start in life to get ahead. We should not be condemned, or held back, simply because of our backgrounds.

According to statistics provided by Durham University, 60.9% of Freshers in 2014 had parents in the most skilled occupations while 40.2% were from independent schools. These factors are privileges that have implications for an individual’s future. The provision of maintenance grants simply helps the less advantaged to compete on a more level playing field.

No system of student finance provision would ever be wholly fair. It isn’t fair that parental disposable income isn’t taken into account, allowing for expenses such as mortgages, to decide who receives the maintenance grant. Taking maintenance grants away from the poorest won’t do anything to make provision of student finance fairer. The move will simply leave more people questioning whether university is worth the cost.

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