Ignoring students amid a cost of living crisis will push more to the brink
When students come together, we can push the powerful to change legislation, policies and agenda. This government has an 80-seat majority, yet even they didn’t dare follow through with plans to cut the student loan repayment threshold.
But this decision was an exception to their rule. The Tories only backed down because 20,000 students came together and demanded that they reversed course. A government that cares for students would have followed the precedent and risen the rate at which graduates pay back their loans with the inflation. Failure to do this has added more than £100 onto the yearly tax bill for graduates from April, and when combined with the hike in National Insurance, those on lower and average incomes will be badly hit.
The energy bill loan will hit students hard through the blanket repayment policy from 2023
Students have been constantly let down by those in power, and throughout my tenure as Vice-President for Higher Education we’ve been downright ignored. There was no mention of higher education in the Chancellor’s Comprehensive Spending Review before Christmas. Since then, with the cost of living crisis affecting millions and millions more across the UK, the government has offered nothing to support students.
Their announcement on council tax refunds won’t help students since NUS' successful campaign means students don’t pay it. And the energy bill loan is anything but a silver bullet; the badly thought-out proposal will hit students hard through the blanket repayment policy from 2023.
These measures should be taken into the context of the cost of living crisis which has been facing students for many years. Living hand to mouth is not new to students when average student rents have increased by 61 per cent in the past decade. I’ve heard from countless students who have been forced to rely on foodbanks whilst studying. NUS’ own research shows that more than two in three students are concerned about financially getting by. With last week’s IFS research showing just how substantial the government’s cuts to the value of maintenance loans have been in the last few years, in the context of rising inflation students need action now.
The levelling up white paper was an opportunity to do right by students. It didn’t only fall short, it was lacklustre and inadequate compared to what students have been needing. When it comes to accessing education or finding fulfilling courses, we know there are huge regional inequalities which have been in place for generations. But they offered no new money to tackle these issues. Instead, it is as a tool to retrench the marketised model of education. Whenever education was mentioned throughout the white paper, you couldn't look past their view that it is nothing more than a vehicle. A vehicle tasked with transporting us to a high paid job. That’s not right. A higher GDP is not a marker for educational success – a society that everyone is cared for is.
So enough of fighting for piecemeal reform, for scraps that may reassure us, for a fleeting moment, that the powers that be acknowledge us. Power concedes nothing without a demand and our demand, quite simply, must be more than merely being acknowledged. Students are demanding power that is transformational, unapologetic and radical. It’s time for the student movement to build its new vision for education beyond this broken system.
We don’t want to be tinkering with repayment criteria for graduates saddled with tens of thousands of student debt. We are expending our energy tinkering with a system which was never built for us.
Yet our campaign to oppose cuts to the repayment threshold did teach us that when we come together, students can achieve change. That’s why, as we enter our 100 year, we’re striking for a funded, accessible, lifelong and democratised education system on 2 March.
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is Vice-President for Higher Education at the NUS.
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