When the Coalition Government hiked university fees to £9,000 per year in 2012, it seemed obvious that this would damage access to higher education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those fears are now being proved right – and new plans announced in the July 2015 budget are likely to make things even worse.

Education should be a way out of poverty for young people or for those trapped in low-paid, low-grade jobs, not a privilege available only to the rich. But a July report by the Independent Commission on Fees (ICF) highlights a ‘significant and sustained’ fall in the numbers of mature and part time students studying for a degree. The Commission believes ‘the new fee regime is a major contributory factor’ to this drop. Many of this group come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Will Hutton, the chair of the Commission, says: ‘The fees hike is potentially having a serious and detrimental impact on their social mobility’. The fact is that the huge burden of debt now facing students is putting off many people from taking up the opportunity of improving their education and earning potential.

Now the Government is going to scrap the means-tested maintenance grants currently available to students from lower-income backgrounds to help with living costs. The grants will be replaced with more loans, creating yet higher debt levels for graduates. The Chancellor also announced that he will allow universities to increase fees in line with inflation, if they demonstrate excellent teaching. Fees are therefore likely to rise to £10,000 a year by 2020.

Burden of debt

Under the current system, the ICF says that the vast majority of students will still be paying off their student loans well into their forties. Nearly three-quarters will fail to clear their debts before the loans are written off after 30 years. In the future, students could end up with debts of £53,000 for a three-year course once the new maintenance loans are included.

Students from more comfortably-off backgrounds at least have the safety net of parents who can support them – with parents paying towards university fees or living expenses, helping with student loan repayments or even reducing the future financial burden by setting money aside for property purchases. Research from Which? recently found that 72 per cent of grandparents are also helping to support young people at university.

But students from more disadvantaged backgrounds or mature students with lower household incomes aren’t shielded from debt in this way and increasingly cannot contemplate taking on the cost of university study. A National Union of Students (NUS) survey found that more than half of students who currently receive maintenance grants felt they would not be at university without their grant, and a further 30 per cent believed the grant was an important factor in their decision to attend.

We seem to be retreating into a past where university education was only available to the richer half of society. Of course the country must cut down its debts, but by reducing access to higher education we are storing up problems for the future economic viability of the UK. Is this the way we want to go?


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