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Students Need A Life Raft In The Brexit Storm - The Green Party Will Build It

27/04/2017 09:02 BST | Updated 27/04/2017 12:19 BST
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No matter your age, I think we can all agree every young person in the UK deserves the best start in life.

That means we need a level playing field so everyone has the chance to go to university if they want to. That's why the Green Party has today pledged to scrap tuition fees, bring back maintenance grants and match EU funding for our universities that is due to be lost after Brexit. Our promise to students is this: we will not let Brexit threaten your future.

Free education and the reinstatement of maintenance grants are not mere fantasies. As a country we must choose what is important to us and invest in it. Britain is the fifth richest country in the world and yet its education is one of the most expensive. For the Green Party, education is a universal right and we can fund it through progressive taxation, in particular corporation tax.

Free education alone will not make university accessible to every potential student. The scrapping of tuition fees must be carried out in conjunction with other measures to ensure young people across the UK not only go to university - but stay there. Students drop out of their courses for a myriad of reasons but the non-completion rate for young students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds has risen faster than other groups.

Maintenance grants were scrapped following a budget announcement by then-Chancellor George Osborne in 2015. More than half a million students relied on the grants for basic living costs while attending universities. The outcry from students, their parents and universities alike mostly went ignored.

In response to the concerns the Tories were quick to point out students aren't out of pocket because they can now get a loan instead of a grant. In fact, you can get a larger amount of money with the loan than you could previously with a maintenance grant.

But ultimately it means the poorer you are when you enter university, the more debt you will leave with. It's totally unjust.

Students are already looking at a lifetime of debt, with £50,000 generated by interest alone. This is an exorbitant amount of debt for someone to take on, particularly if they are a teenager going straight from school to university. It's incredibly daunting.

BME students in particular have been shown to be very debt averse and less likely to attend university knowing they will be saddled with thousands of pounds worth of debt they may never be able to repay. In response to a survey by NUS, one in three students said they would not have gone to university without a maintenance grant.

Giving students the means to pay for day to day living costs is essential. In 2016, UCL was accused of 'social cleansing' because working class students were being shut out of higher education simply because they could not afford their rent.

Students staged a highly successful rent strike, eventually receiving offers from UCL of £350,000 for fund accommodation bursaries for students in most need of financial support, to freeze rent for 2016/17 and to reduce rent for some rooms.

But it never should have been necessary. The impact of living costs on students' lives cannot be overstated - they need this money to survive. No one should be forced to compromise when it comes to paying rent or buying food.

The pressure on our universities is not solely due to Brexit. Our own Government appears to be determined to turn education into a commodity to be bought and sold. The Higher Education and Research Bill marks a rapid descent into increased marketization in the sector.

Staggeringly, the current Government has paved the way for tuition fees to be even higher than the already ridiculous £9,000. Some universities immediately jumped on board, with fees climbing to £9250 - even for students who were already partway through their degrees.

However, there is no doubt Brexit is an unprecedented threat to our universities. Earlier this month students were dealt yet another blow, with the announcement that the student loan interest rate will rise by a third after a UK inflation surge.

We also face the prospect all EU funding for our universities will be lost. The Green Party pledged today to protect their world class research by replacing the EU funding they are set to lose with a UK equivalent.

And while the Green Party will always stand up for freedom of movement for everyone, the Erasmus programme must be protected in an uncertain future outside of the EU. We will not let young people miss out on opportunities to study, travel and work across Europe because of a decision that they so emphatically voted against.

Students need a life raft in the Brexit storm. They are being ignored in the negotiations, despite having the most to lose. Building a better future for young people is an absolute priority for the Green Party and today we committed to policies that will help us work towards an open, fairer society where everyone has the chance to succeed. The Green Party is the only party standing up for students and putting young people at the heart of its campaign.

Jonathan Bartley is the co-leader of the Green Party