Higher education is one of the most vital resources this country has got. It's worth about £70billionn to the British economy, reinforces the nation's withering status as a global superpower and provides domestic workers with the skills they need to help drive our economy forward. Bearing that in mind, it's fair to say that any and all attempts to destabilise Britain's higher education system should be pegged as a devastatingly idiotic own goal.
Enter George Osborne and the UK's first all-Conservative Budget since 1996.
This week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer unveiled his latest round of austerity measures, which will slash around £12billion in spending from a wide range of public services. A lot of these savings will be generated through the removal of tax cuts and a hike of below-market housing fees that poor people rely on in order to survive. No surprises, then. But what does come as a surprise is the Chancellor's decision to axe university maintenance grants.
At present, a student in England and Wales can receive a higher education maintenance grant of up to £3,387 if their family earns less than £25,000 per year. Smaller grants are made available to students whose parents earn more, up until a family's annual household income reaches £42,620. Unlike a loan, these grants do not need to be repaid - and they're usually meant to cover additional education costs such as overpriced books, bills or rent.
Well, according to Mr Osborne, the government has been way too generous to all of these poor kids. From here on out, maintenance grants are set to be converted into your ordinary, run-of-the-mill loans. That means students will need to pay every penny back after they find a job and start earning a certain amount of money.
Okay: at face value, that sounds like a relatively practical way to help trim some of the fat off Britain's lengthy list of public expenditures. But when is anything ever that simple?
Every year, fewer and fewer UK students are choosing to move on to higher education. In fact, enrolment has been dropping steadily for the past five years. In the last year alone, the number of UK students taking on part-time courses has withered by a whopping 8%. Why? Because juggling work and school in this country isn't cheap.
Last month, the average monthly rent in London hit £1,500. Most part-time jobs at Starbucks won't cover that. Factor in bills, travel, overpriced textbooks and the odd Pot Noodle, and most students have no idea what the breadline even looks like. Add £40,000 in tuition fees and a new wad of debt courtesy of the UK Government, and it's becoming nigh impossible to justify going to university at all.
Think about it: would you choose to go to university to learn fantastic new skills if you knew it would land you with £60,000 worth of debt? Any poor kid with a lick of sense would shudder at the thought.
And for those families still intent on sending their clever children to university, the removal of government maintenance grants means that a series of tough decisions are on the horizon. Not only will students need to settle for cheaper or shorter courses in order to reduce costs, but they'll also need to pick and choose where they can afford to study. For all we know, the world's next Darwin is about to sacrifice genetics for an online catering course simply because he or she can't afford rent in Edinburgh city centre.
At the end of the day, by turning a long-standing government grant into yet another piece of debt, we're simply creating one more unnecessary barrier that will prevent people from pursuing a proper education. We can't afford to let that happen.
This country is already experiencing a brain drain. According to researchers at UCL, one in ten of the country's top workers have been lured away by better working conditions in other countries. Consequently, British companies have got a genuine demand for highly skilled, educated workers. And we've got more than enough bodies to meet that demand. But you know what? By removing crucial incentives like university maintenance grants, our government will discourage that many more students from obtaining the skills those companies need.
When are we going to stop shooting ourselves in the foot? If we want to bolster domestic business and really get our economy moving, higher education is the last thing we should be taking a swing at. We're perpetuating our own lack of knowledge, and it's going to cost us in the long run.
But hey, anything to balance the books, right?