Editorial – Maintenance loans: the Devil’s in the details

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To many, the government’s announcement that maintenance grants for low-income household students would be replaced with loans was seen as the next installment in its crusade against students. First, tuition fees were raised to £9,000 for the 2012 intake, and now students from low-income households are to be denied the financial support they need to attend university in the first place.

Obviously the idea of reducing support for low-income students sounds incredibly unfair. Almost catastrophic, in fact, for such students in St Andrews who already have to deal with ridiculously high living costs.

But, we must ask ourselves: what is the reality of the situation?

To see beyond tabloid headlines, we need to look at the fine print and delve into the details of the new maintenance loan. Previously, with the grant system, low-income students were eligible to receive up to £3,387 a year. The new system allows these same students to receive up to £8,200 yearly.

The trade off being that, although students are due to receive more financial support under the changes, they may have to pay this sum back following graduation (unlike under the previous system). We say students ‘may’ have to pay back their loan because the structure of the new system requires that repayments be taken as a percentage of any earnings over £21,000. Simply, students who take out maintenance loans will not have to pay a single penny back unless they earn over £21,000.

As such, the previous structure of the grant is not entirely gone. Rather, low-income students will have the opportunity to receive increased financial support throughout their university years, which they will not have to pay back later unless they possess the means to do so.

In St Andrews, the increased sum received by low-income students may help cover the exorbitant prices of living in the Bubble, enabling them to further immerse themselves in university life. Consequently, we believe that criticism of the new loan on the grounds that it reduces financial support is incorrect. Rather, the loan will be providing more support than the grant did.

Indeed, the changes may actually help widen access to St Andrews for students from low-income backgrounds, as they will now be able to live and study in the town comfortably.

It is for this reason that The Saint endorses the change, because it recognizes that living costs are arguably more important than tuition fees when considering a university. If students are unable to afford the day-to-day costs of a town like St Andrews, the question of whether they have the grades to study here, or whether one day they must pay back their loans becomes irrelevant.

What’s most important is whether students have the financial support they need to deal with daily living costs, and turning the maintenance grant into a loan will do just that. It will allow students who may have previously dismissed St Andrews (despite no tuition fee’s for Scottish students) as unaffordable, to instead reconsider the university as a place of study.

Of course a grant providing a larger sum without requiring payment would be preferable.

However, if it is a choice between a lower grant or a higher loan, we believe that low-income students, especially those in St Andrews, will benefit from a larger amount of financial support available.

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