04/10/2017 05:09 BST | Updated 04/10/2017 05:09 BST

Frozen Tuition Fees Leave Me Feeling Cold


Before Conservative Party Conference began in Manchester on Sunday there were rumblings in the media of a huge announcement on tuition fees, maintenance grants, interest rates and higher education. After weeks of soul searching from the Conservative Party about how they attract the youth vote, I packed my suitcase on Saturday night with high expectations and an open mind. What actually materialised wasn't quite what I'd hoped for.

Freezing of tuition fees at the pricey total of £9,250 a year and the slightly better rise in the repayment threshold. There was also some talk about a 'review' - which was immediately denied. The Conservative party tried to describe this tinkering as 'revolutionary'. If I could sum up T May's announcement in one word, it would be: underwhelming. If I could use two words, they would be: significantly underwhelming.

If this was some contorted attempt to appeal to the young, the Tories need to go back to the drawing board and fast. If this is all they could muster out of their frantic searches for solutions to win over the youth vote, then their thinking around education in this country needs a rethink. YouGov revealed recently that you are only more likely to vote Conservative after the age of 47; it's clear that the government's drastic changes to policy affecting young people aren't working and they're showing that discontent at the polls. This is a weak attempt to woo the group least likely to vote for them. It will do nothing to reduce their overall debt burden, the raise in the repayment threshold does go some way in helping low earning graduates - taking them out of repayments entirely before £25,000 is at least a welcome step. Under the current system if you earn £25,000 you repay 9% of everything above £21,000, so that's £360 a year. With the threshold rising, these graduates will pay nothing, saving hundreds, possibly thousands to lower earning graduates.

But, and this is a big but, NUS has been saying for a long time education funding is broken. The broken funding system for universities and colleges is acknowledged by these changes, something myself and other elected officers have been shining a light on. The model for education funding does not work for the Treasury, does not work for the public and does not work for students, saddling them with high debt that will not be repaid in the majority of cases.

The economy does not have the skilled workforce that it needs, the choices of potential students are unfairly shaped by their expectations of what is a good job and whether they will be able to 'stay in' and 'get on' once in post-16 education.

Public opinion is clearly with us - education is a public good and the government needs to put this at the centre of their thinking on the future of universities.

So after the weekend, where are we? Well the timely announcement is a minor change that will be negligible in the long run. Fiddling with the numbers mounts to nothing more than a headline, one that many political figures and policy groups saw through immediately. Theresa May's words were 'we know that the cost of higher education is a worry, which is why we are pledging to help students with an immediate freeze in maximum fee levels'. Sorry, but this is not going to scratch the surface of the 'worries' facing students.

The real struggle for students I speak to and those up and down the country is cost of living. Paying for ever rising rents, food and bills that are a necessity when starting life at university. These are the things that matter here and now and the government not addressing this or mentioning maintenance grants at all is the real injustice. With higher dropout rates than ever before, students (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, BME communities and those with caring responsibilities) are finding it ever harder to make ends meet. If this government want to start helping with the worries of students, they need to stop turning a blind eye to the real issues of the day.

Shakira Martin is national president of the NUS