Poorer students may now justly conclude that the prospect of a lifelong debt makes university less of an opportunity and more of a millstone around the neck

This summer’s Budget marked the first by a Conservative government in 18 years. Triumphalism, tax cuts and the national living wage placed to one side; the Budget made cuts to areas of spending which will jeopardise social mobility. Having taught and worked at an inner-London Sixth Form College for the past two years, nothing concerned me more than the decision to scrap the student maintenance grant and replace it with an increased loan.

For some of my students, the news took a little while to sink in. Many hadn’t engaged with the General Election, and who’d blame them? A five-month mudslinging match of oft-repeated rhetoric is hardly invigorating at the best of times! However, this was the first time that national politics had truly impacted them with the risk of stymieing their future dreams and ambitions. Many come from lower-income backgrounds and would depend on support such as the maintenance grant to continue their studies. Some were left wondering whether university would be affordable at all.

Under the present system, students in England and Wales from families that have an annual income of less than £25,000 are entitled to a maintenance grant of £3,387. If the family’s income is £30,000 the grant falls to £2,241; at £35,000 to 1,494 and at £40,000 to £547. When total household income exceeds £42,620 it is not paid at all. Unlike the tuition and maintenance loans, grants are not repaid. They have proven themselves to be an essential source of support to many students across the UK. Once expensive accommodation fees are deducted from the maintenance loan, for many, grants become essential in covering the day-to-day cost of living.

The logic which formerly underpinned the grants and loans system was simple. The more your parents earn, the more you will pay to attend university. There were deep flaws. For example, students who were estranged from high-earning parents suffered hardships. Nevertheless, progressive principles informed the distribution of student finance. The new system requires students from poorer backgrounds to accrue greater amounts of debt to attend university. To add insult to injury, institutions commended for ‘teaching excellence’ will eventually be allowed to raise fees beyond the £9,000 limit established in 2010.

Speaking to ShoutOut earlier, a student at the University of London said the following:

‘I would really struggle to survive without the grant. I’m entitled to the full amount, I have also applied for the loan, and the higher amount loan to ensure I can cover all costs. I wouldn’t say it would put me off attending university, but I would have to consider living at home and travelling to university every day to save living costs. Luckily my university is 40 minutes away on the train, so its feasible. But for those wanting to attend university further afield, I really believe that they will consider not choosing university. The amount of money students have to pay back is already quite scary, to think that the grant will be converted into a loan, therefore increasing the “debt” would put me off if I was a few years younger and more likely to be affected’.

Research conducted by the Huffington Post produced similar results.

I was relieved to find that the announcement had not deterred my students from attending university, but they understood its impact and potential consequences nonetheless. Reflecting upon the news, there was consensus that the reforms would potentially deter working-class students from attending university. As one individual put it: ‘many of us, who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are already worried by high fees. Raising them further will make many think twice’. Although his determination to attend university was unwavering he did admit to being ‘disheartened’.

Another student agreed that the legislation ran the risk of deterring poorer students, but argued that a good case for attending university still remained. ‘The employment opportunities available are more lucrative, so the cost of attending [is] ultimately balanced out’, she argued. However she didn’t deny that the reforms would have an impact. Many of her family members and friends relied on loans to move away from home. The prospect of further debt might deter ‘those who are unsure whether they want to attend university, whilst many might opt to stay at home meaning that they miss out on the life experiences and cultural awareness that are such an important part of the university experience’.

The ultimate consequences of this recent spate of ‘reform’ to student funding will potentially take years to manifest. However, in targeting funds that are of such critical importance to poorer students it is highly likely that many will be discouraged from attending university. The potential impact which this could have on social mobility is easy to understand.