In Chancellor George Osborne’s summer 2015 budget, he announced that student maintenance grants would be replaced with loans in the 2016-2017 academic year. Previously, £3,387 grants were available to students with household incomes of £25,000 or less, and increasingly lower grants were available to students whose families earned up to £42,620. Now, those grants are loans to be repaid, should those students land jobs earning over £21,000 after they graduate.
Following the announcement, critics commented on the risk that this could discourage students from lowincome families from attending university, as taking the full loan package on top of university fees would now come to £59,800 over three years (the average length of course in an English university). This is a serious concern for those universities with a reputation for high living costs or antagonism towards part-time jobs.
First year Tom Oliver highlighted an additional issue, saying, “The UK has a shortage in many skilled professions such as doctors, nurses, scientists and engineers. Making university less accessible can only widen the gap in skills this country has. It can only make matters worse for the NHS, [which is] already having to employ more and more doctors and nurses from overseas.”
Mr Oliver’s quote highlights the fear that the new budget may decrease the numbers of prospective students applying to university. The importance of encouraging low-income students was recognised by the introduction of the maintenance grant, which “greatly improved the prospects for economically disadvantaged students in the past. Taking away this support line will revert this progress and make the student body more homogenous,” Mr Oliver added.
One defence used against critics of the change is that the maintenance loan is structured so that recipients of the maintenance loan do not pay anything back until they earn above £21,000. At that point, money is automatically taken from the student’s wages as a percentage of earnings above £21,000, similar to taxes. Therefore low-income students do not need to pay back the maintenance loan at all, should they not land a job which pays £21,000 or above, after graduation.
In a town such as St Andrews, these developments provide both opportunities and drawbacks. With the loan now being repaid (unlike the grant), the size of the loan offered has been increased beyond what was offered by the maintenance grant, and this could help with the high price of housing costs.
Previously, the maximum grant offered was £3,387, but this has now been replaced with a loan capped at £8,200. Living costs in St Andrews are amongst the highest in the country, and the previous maintenance grant could barely cover this. The increased loan can provide more help, at the risk of potentially more debt.
Is this a determining factor for many low-income students, however? The prospect of never paying off debt must surely be a terrifying and critical factor in determining whether students attend university.
Despite the role of debt as a discouraging factor, the BBC reported that in 2014 the number of students from low-income backgrounds did not change after the introduction of £9,000 per year fees in the 2012-2013 school year. This demonstrates that more debt has not actually discouraged low-income students from attending university, yet many of them have no choice. Significant debt is the only route to a university education for all of us. The quantity of debt just from tuition fees taken on by university students in England has risen from nothing in 1997 to £1,000 in 1998, £3,000 in 2004, to £9,000 in 2012. With this new legislation, the potential for debt has increased once again.
Yet loans are not the only financial option available to students. In the 2013-2014 academic year, a tranche of money set aside under the access agreement was given to low-income and other poorly represented students in the form of bursaries, fee waivers and scholarships. 88% of the £435.7 million used in these bursaries went to students whose household income was under £25,000. Additionally, while this is not a perfect solution, there are also part-time jobs available. In 2014, The Guardian reported that 45% of students had a part-time job, a practical solution to earning some extra income whilst at university.
Whether saddling low-income students with more post-university debt will discourage them from applying to university is left to be seen, but the omens are not good. Attending university is an immense force for socioeconomic change, and in a state which seeks to improve the economic status of its people, any barriers to education should be of concern.
Another blow could come in the form of tying university fees to inflation, which could further increase debt. As more debt piles up, this may precipitate major problems for society, and discourage low-income students from attending university at all.
For now, we shall have to wait and see whether those fears materialise.