After a summer of talk about the broken higher education funding system and intergenerational inequality, the Autumn Budget is an opportunity for the government to show that they are ready to tackle these issues. The general election showed that the youth vote carries serious power and if the government is serious about appealing to young people, they must start to listen.
The Chancellor needs to think very carefully about the offer he makes to young people. There are a number of things he could do, such as cutting interest rates on student loan repayments, which would appease some critics but would make a negligible difference to real students’ lives. If the conservatives truly want to show that they are in touch with young voters, they need to steer away from empty gestures and address the most urgent needs faced by students and young people.
The most pressing and universal issue facing students at the moment is the living conditions that they are forced into through lack of sufficient funding. The government desperately need to start recognising this. The Universities Minister’s recent claims that students should live ‘more frugally’ are damning evidence that the minister has absolutely no idea what life on campus is actually like. I know students who spend time in the library simply to stay warm, because they can’t afford to turn the heating on at home. I know students who limit showers to two minutes to cut back on water costs. I regularly speak to students who live in damp, mouldy, freezing cold houses, who work night shifts and then have to drag themselves in to lectures the next day. I myself worked night shifts during university and I can assure you - I did not do that to fund an extravagant lifestyle, I did it to fund the basic living costs that were not covered by my maintenance loan.
All students face these difficulties, but those from the poorest backgrounds are by far the worst affected. I recently spoke to a medical student from a single parent, working class family who faces being evicted because her maintenance loan does not cover her rent and her mother is unable to help her financially. Despite having a job, she is on a zero hours contract and is not getting enough work to cover her living costs. This may cost her degree, and if she is forced to drop out she will be left with tens of thousands of pounds of debt and nothing to show for it. This is not an isolated case, it is reality for thousands of students across the UK right now: 10% of students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not make it past their first year of study.
So what’s the answer? Increasing the amount of maintenance that University students can claim through loans is not enough. The current maintenance loans system forces the poorest students, those who can’t turn to their parents for financial support, to take on the highest levels of debt. This regressive system only serves to reinforce social inequality by essentially charging the most disadvantaged students the highest price for their education: £57,000. This debt will stay with them well into their 50s and they are very unlikely to ever pay it off. The government must do away with this system of loans and reintroduce maintenance grants. These grants must be calculated based on the actual cost of living and must adequately cover all students’ basic needs.
Maintenance grants should not be exclusive to higher education. Students in further education, such as those studying at technical colleges or in apprenticeships, face the same challenges and are often overlooked. Maintenance grants for students in further education must be introduced, along with fairer wages for apprentices and a new and improved education maintenance allowance. All this should be done as a minimum, while the government commits to a full, long term review into tertiary education funding. Only then will the quality of life for students across the UK begin to improve.
Education is a right and a public good. Students must be supported to focus on their studies and their future, rather than spending time worrying about where this month’s rent will come from. In his little red briefcase, the chancellor carries the power to make these changes. On Budget day, we will see if he is willing to use it.
Izzy Lenga is the NUS Vice President, Welfare