THE BLOG

Osborne's Spending Review Punishes Students Who Are Transforming Lives

26/11/2015 11:57 GMT | Updated 26/11/2016 10:12 GMT

As ever, alongside the usual raucous made by politicians from all sides, at every spending review the devil is often in the detail. That is no different this time around. Despite his attempts to paint a seemingly confident picture in Parliament, George Osborne's 154 page document spells out changes which will have a big impact on the landscape of public services and well beyond.

Students face the brunt of a number of expected, and unexpected, policies from the government that will inevitably leave them worse off - not just financially, but paying with their life chances. While the government remain bullish on paying down the public deficit, it is the impact on private debt where we should be most concerned. If the details of his plan do materialise, according to his prized Office of Budget Responsibility, the Chancellor will have managed to secure an increase in the overall level of household debt by 2021.

The generation of students that I represent now find themselves facing a crisis in the cost of studying and living. A crisis which means learners in colleges and undergraduates at university are having to choose between putting food on the table and paying the electricity bill. The 'choices' the government are so proud of creating for students have become about heating or eating. This is a crisis that we have to tackle.

Yesterday the Chancellor announced that his main priority was to pile more debt onto the shoulders of the poorest students. With an average starting salary of £21,692, and with fifty percent of them having children, student nurses will now be forced to take on some £40,000 worth of debt to study.

Worst still, if the government have their way and scrap maintenance grants, the poorest students will face debts of over £53,000. A penalty they will pay for the rest of their careers just for starting off with less money than their rich peers. The idea that this will not put people off training to work in our NHS is laughable. This is a reckless gamble not just for education, but for our public services.

Back on campuses, students together with their students' unions have been campaigning to improve their education. Just one example comes to mind of students raising the profile of a vital issue is ensuring spotting the signs of domestic violence is on their curriculum. This doesn't just make their education better, but also means real change for thousands of people who rely on our public services and the trained, educated staff that deliver them. We cannot afford to lose their skills and dedication because of the rising personal debts that force people to drop out of education, or miss out altogether.

Prior to this week's spending review, the government released their green paper for the future of higher education. Here, the government spelled out how they want to consult on the role students' unions play in education. Student nurses are just one example of the groups who do amazing work with students' unions day-in, day-out to improve education and outcomes for everyone, but I use this example for a reason. Student nurses working outside of their courses to make their education better differs from the perception of students drinking in a bar - but student's unions exist in all forms and in all types and there is no 'normal' student with one set of stereotyped traits.

The examples are endless. The work that students' unions, together with NUS' Women's Campaign, have undertaken to promote women and leadership has also changed people's lives. This isn't just about politics and empowerment, but about a whole generation of women students who know they have the skills to be leaders in their own right. The millions of pounds that students in their students' unions Raising and Giving Societies win every year for local charities. The hundreds of thousands of advice cases that students' unions cope with every quarter to give students' the power to succeed in their education and take dodgy landlords to task. These are the unsung stories of how students, through collective action in their student's unions, change their own and other peoples' lives.

On Monday I launched a national day to say that we #LoveSUs. Thousands took to blogs, social media and newspapers to say how students' unions had impacted upon their lives - often giving them opportunities they could never have had or dreamed of elsewhere. This is what widening participation really looks like. I was incredibly grateful to see politicians including Caroline Lucas, Stephen Farry in Northern Ireland, Ruth Davidson and Gavin Newlands in Scotland and sector bodies including GuildHE, the Association of Colleges and British Universities & Colleges Sport joining together with NUS to say they appreciate, respect and love the work that students' unions do.

We need to continue these efforts to show this government that what students' unions do is about improving access to education, transforming education itself and changing peoples' lives. It is a story that they too often shy away from.

That speaks volumes when yesterday as part of the spending review the government have announced they want to slash the Student Opportunity Fund by up to half and wrack up debts on the back of the poorest students in Britain. Students' unions and the students they represent and champion must come together and use this collective power to fight these damaging changes. And we will.

George Osborne's long-term economic plan seems to be built on the idea that piling up personal debt is somehow a solution to public debt. He would be wise to learn the lessons of the financial crisis in 2008 that the former can often lead to the latter.

Megan Dunn is national president of the National Union of Students