Filthy peasants, hearken unto the voice of reason.
In July 2015, I had the overwhelmingly sensual pleasure to find myself in the Chamber of the House of Commons, listening to Big G. Osborne’s budget. Just as George’s dulcet tones caressed me into a tender doze, my perky intern ears pricked up.
Maintenance grants into loans?! Monstrous!
Both then and now, the knee-jerk reaction is to condemn the cutting of the maintenance grants. Why should undergrad Oliver Twist be financially bitch-slapped by Mr Osborne? Will no one stop the remorseless Tory scythe of austerity?
Allow me to reassure you then, fellow students, for the Angel is in the detail. Put down your pitchforks and call off the Tory-bashing hounds, because I bring good news. The lifeline which the maintenance grant provided to poor students has not been cut.
In fact, it is even stronger.
As I feel myself step onto the thin ice of right-wing student politics, and can already feel the vitriolic emails pouring in (firstname.lastname@example.org – game on, lefties), allow me to spell out why support for low-income students has gone up.
The maintenance grant previously gave £3,387 to low-income students, never to be repaid. This was great, but created a massive financial hole to the tune of £1.6bn for England alone.
The new maintenance loan which will replace the grant will now offer those same students £8,200 a year, only to be repaid if they earn over £21,000 after graduation.
In short, financial support for low-income students has more than doubled. The lifeline is not gone. With the increased funds, more students will be able to attend universities with high living costs (like St Andrews) than ever before. Under the new system, little Oliver is not being turned away; he asked for more, and he can indeed have more: £4,813 more.
Yet with the increased funds available, the previous £1.6bn financial hole has ruptured into a gaping £4.6bn crater that would put Chicxulub to shame.
The principle behind the repayment scheme is that the state is taking a gamble upon each student. Should a low-income household student enter university poor, and leave university poor, the £51,000 loan investment (£9,000 tuition x three years and £8,200 maintenance x three years) will never be repaid. This appears to be fair; the education system failed to improve the life prospects of that student, and therefore no repayment is required.
Yet for those low-income household students who enter university thanks to this scheme, benefit from their education, and land well-paid graduate jobs; asking a return contribution in order to continue the scheme for the next generation appears fair.
Yet why should students from low income households repay anything? Well in a perfect world, the government would increase taxes so much that university would be free for us all. I’m in debt to the sweet tune of £49,000, so would happily throw the profits of a few British firms onto the bonfire in order to mop up my university debt.
Unfortunately, the government has promised to not raise taxes. This isn’t a wishy-washy claim like Clegg’s tuition fee banter, or Clinton’s ‘what intern Hillary?’ shenanigans. This is the real deal. If you don’t want low-income household students to pay back their loans (and from a moral perspective I can see why), then get out there and lobby the shit out of Cameron to raise taxes (bearing in mind that you will soon be paying those taxes, and it may harm the economy). I bid you good luck in your attempt to reason with the powers that be, noble Ned Stark.
In the meantime, the reality is that St. Andrews alumni (in the eyes of the government) cannot be defined by their parents’ economic background in perpetuity, if their own economic situation has changed significantly, post-graduation. Gatsby didn’t pay the same tax rates as his dust-bowl parents, after all.
If a low-income student comes to St Andrews thanks to the maintenance loan, and ten years later is a hot-shot banker making it rain in Canary Wharf, then they should repay the debt they owe to fund the scheme for the next generation. That is justified.
Conversely, if a low-income student comes to St Andrews thanks to the loan, and graduates without any noticeable change in their economic situation, then nothing is asked of them.
Whilst the ‘maintenance grant being cut’ is a concerning headline, it has been replaced by a loan that provides more financial support to the poorest, and only asks repayment of those who can afford it. That seems justified.
Upon initially sitting down to write this article, I thought I had a plan. And so, with fingers aloft, I set out to illuminate my keyboard and serve up an incendiary 700 words slating the ambivalent name of the Honourable and Righteous George Osborne (shout out, love you man).
What instead came of this was something a little more resonant of the way toothpaste looks when you push too much out of the tube and it does a sad flop to one side. I.e, the kind of banal trope which comes into being when you don’t feel strongly about a topic to write anything even half-illuminating. And so, the following – regarding Osborne’s recent decision to cut the maintenance grants which are currently offered to students from middle to low-income families – will be more of an ambiguous ‘mull’, potentially interspersed with grumblings of ill feeling largely directed towards our old pal George, as opposed to anything with a particular ‘viewpoint’ leaning one way or the other over the proverbial fence. And so.
To give a little context to those uninformed: the way the current system works means that students whose parents’ income is less than £25,000 per annum receive £3,387 in maintenance grants from the government every year. The cut off point for these grants is £42,620 – classic annoying fiddly Tory policy – meaning that if your parents earn over this, your chances of receiving one disappear into the ether. What Osborne is proposing is that this money still be doled out, but in the form of a loan.
Arguably, the system was flawed to begin with – I have friends whose parents are not wealthy enough to provide them with significant financial support, for example, but who earn too much money for their children to benefit from the grant scheme. These are the friends who are the most avid eaters of lentils, and, to be fair, what’s more fun and desirable than a circumstantially imposed macrobiotic diet? Pretty much nothing! Other than maybe free university tuition. But I have faith in George and his bros – they’ll come good eventually. They’re men of their word.
Some cheat the system – those with rich fathers only claiming the incomes of their mothers and jetting away on tidy all-inclusives to Tenerife with their boyfriends using their share of helpful but really quite unnecessary state funds. This kind of tiresomely typical behaviour – the individualistic abuse of government initiations intended to benefit society as a whole – cannot be blamed upon Osborne and the crew, but does highlight another significant flaw in the system.
The most significant issue I can foresee with this whole system is not the financial aspect – let’s be honest, an additional three grand a year to the mountain of debt we will end up with is not going to have massive repercussions in itself – but the effects it will have on the children from economically unstable homes who have the capacity to attend university, but who are deterred by the thought of what they feel would be an impossible financial situation, and whose parents are not educated enough to be able to educate them upon the value of further education in spite of cost.
What angers me is not necessarily waving goodbye to the yearly chunk of free money – in such an economic climate, we all have to make sacrifices – but what this loss represents; primarily, a blatant display of the current Tory government’s disregard for this up-and-coming generation of leaders and problem solvers, particularly those from underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds. With this new initiative, the Conservative party is only serving to alienate itself from the generation it should be seeking to connect with. Not because youth trumps age, or because we as a generation deserve to be coddled and sweet-talked out of our apathy (because that shouldn’t be necessary: apathy is a choice, and one we’d be wiser as a generation to avoid), but because we are their successors. To take a seat at the kitchen table of sentiment, if you’d join me, we are their children and grandchildren; we should be on the same side, irrespective of socio-economic background and bogus ideas of ‘class’.
What angers me is the perpetuation of a system where the privileges of the privileged are prioritised by those who themselves have only ever known privilege. Out of touch, moneyed, landed, Oxbridge hailing white men who will never know or understand the real consequences of the decisions they sign off with all the cavalier concern of one at a Sunday brunch. I would be a big believer in Sunday brunches, but alas, I am too poor to afford them. So George, I address you: if you’re ever in St Andrews and want to take me for Sunday brunch then please HMU because there’s nothing I need more than free food and nothing I want more than the attentions of a smirky Tory who wears exclusively boring ties. Honestly, I wish to cordially invite you to come and party with us all here in Fife. We’re a fun bunch, I promise. And maybe if you met us, you’d stop hating the young so much.