Student Grants Are What Got Me Through Uni, So Please Don't Cut Them
The Debrief: George Osborne's announcement to cut student maintenance grants for those from lower-income backgrounds has left graduates like Hannah, worried about other people like her...
The US can keep the American Dream because we have something better in the UK: a very unique kind of social aspiration – one based in academia and the desire for knowledge instead of a thirst for money.
It has at times felt like anyone can drag themselves out of a working class background and into the middle class world of well-paid work. And good old-fashioned education is the way to do that.
Sadly, that idea is now long gone. In the Emergency Budget, George Osborne announced maintenance grants for university students would be scrapped. He said they’d become ‘unaffordable’ to taxpayers and valiantly added, to cheers: ‘If we don’t tackle this problem, then universities will become under-funded and our students won’t get places, and I’m not prepared to let that happen.’
But the only students who won’t be getting places are those from working class families, because they won’t be able to afford to go.
Even as the system stands, working class students have the odds stacked against them. Students from well-off backgrounds are 10 times more likely to receive a place at university than those from poorer circumstances, and even after graduation, 70% of ‘leading firms’ – whatever that means – prefer to take on graduates who have passed the unofficial ‘poshness’ tests.
NUS president Megan Dunn has said: ‘Students living on beans and sketches about student poverty have become a punchline. But this isn’t a joke, it’s a national crisis.’
George Osborne might return with statistics saying, 10% more students from lower-income backgrounds are attending university since the 2010 hike in tuition fees from £3,000 to up to £9,000.
But maintenance grants have been incredibly important in offering stability to these students. Because while fees have increased, grants have increased in line with them. They’re vital to poorer students and to take them away presents them with a potential looming graduate debt of £51,600 (nearly twice as much as that for 2009’s graduates from lower income backgrounds).
My parents are separated and have low incomes, but luckily, when I got into King’s College University to study English Literature and Language in 2011, means-testing meant I qualified for the maximum grant which was just over £3,000 a year. I honestly can’t imagine how I would have got through my first year without it.
I didn’t have the cushion of parental support to rely on – I couldn’t call my parents for money if I went into my overdraft. But I’d got the grades for uni, so of course, I was going to try my best to study there.
However, it was only just before arriving in London that I realised the maintenance loan only just covered my halls’ rent. I also had to wait two months for the grant to come in. While I could get away with not really drinking in the pub during the day, my new friends would go out for food and plan weekends away. I was isolated simply by a lack of funds.
I had depression before coming to university, but after a few days of realising how my finances were going to pan out, it evolved into a new, fun and super-convenient new depression-anxiety hybrid that lasted for 10 months – juggling a part-time job and my degree in this period would have been impossible.
I missed out on so much socialising that even when I could scrape together some money for an occasional night out, I didn’t want to. Most days I’d choose hiding in my room or inventing coursework deadlines over doing anything.
You see, as well as being essential for paying food and rent, it’s important to remember that grants are necessary for students’ emotional and psychological wellbeing. They allow students to actually engage with people and make friends. They allow students to take care of themselves mentally.
Thankfully, just before my second year, I went home, got a handle on my mental health and got a job as a waitress. Back at university I got a part-time job selling trainers, which meant I could afford to do most of what my friends were doing. And, importantly, my grant allowed me to do unpaid internships in London during university.
Internships are so vital to employment, the Conservatives auctioned some off for £2,000 a pop at their black-tie ball in 2011 – the same year I could barely get by. While David Cameron’s since banned the sale of internships at Conservative events, it’s an unwritten rule that, in the wider world, interns must slog it out for free to make headway in certain careers. No matter how much student debt they’re in.
I’m so grateful for the grant because there’s no way I’d be at this stage in my career without it.
University is difficult enough already for working class students. The government could save grants for those with households earning under £25,000 (the requirement for the most needy) and scrap grants for those with households earning more and still save money.
But the Treasury’s decision to inflict austerity on students has made it clear: getting people from low-income families into university and giving them job opportunities equal to the privileged few like themselves, is not what they want.
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Follow Hannah on Twitter @HannahRoseEwens
Photograph by Maggy van Eijk
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