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Scrapping maintenance grants slammed the brakes on social mobility – it’s time to bring them back

(Alamy)

4 min read

Politicians know to tread carefully around the topic of tuition fees.

Nick Clegg in particular understands how explosive this minefield can get. Having abandoned the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees, he went on to lose 49 of his party’s 57 seats at the 2011 general election. This topic sucks up vast amounts of political oxygen pretty much any time it is mentioned and, unfortunately, as so often in British politics, the volatility of the issue bends the debate out of shape and gets in the way of much-needed, pragmatic discussion – in this case, around reforming the student maintenance system. 

There are certainly issues with the current fees system, but the area most loudly crying out for intervention is student living costs. The urgency for support was pressing even before rampant inflation made it more so. It’s clear now that George Osborne made a tragic mistake when he scrapped means-tested, non-repayable grants in 2016 in favour of a loans-based system where students borrow money to cover their living costs. He might as well have slammed a brake on social mobility. 

Saddling the least well-off students with the most debt is patently unfair

In 2019, the Augar review recommended bringing back maintenance grants of at least £3,000 for disadvantaged students. So far, the government has seen fit to ignore that recommendation.

Yet rethinking support for living costs would yield immediate results in encouraging the most disadvantaged young people to access higher education. Keir Starmer’s Labour, which is currently reviewing its position on student finance after its U-turn on tuition fees earlier this year, must surely step in.

The average student debt, including tuition fees and maintenance costs, now stands at £46,000 on graduation. There are, however, wide variations between those from different backgrounds. The abolition of grants has led to the outrageous situation where students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds end up graduating with the highest levels of debt. From September, low-income students can borrow up to £13,022 for the 2023-24 academic year, while those from the wealthiest families can borrow up to £6,485. The poorest students, therefore, end up borrowing a lot more than their wealthier peers whose parents are in a position to top up their income. 

Soaring inflation has also meant a real-terms cut to student support levels. By the end of the next academic year, the amount the Student Loans Company can lend will have dropped by 11 per cent in absolute terms over two years – the largest fall in student maintenance levels since the early 1960s.

Despite borrowing more than their better-off peers, the least advantaged students are still more likely to need to work alongside their studies to supplement their student loans. Is it any wonder that many potential undergraduates from low-income households look at this set-up and think: “No thanks”?

Saddling the least well-off students with the most debt is patently unfair, yet the issue barely surfaces in the current political discourse. However, reintroducing maintenance grants for low-income students is widely popular, with nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of the public supporting it in a recent poll. 

Earlier this year, research by the Sutton Trust showed 63 per cent of students have spent less on food and essentials this academic year, with 28 per cent saying they had skipped meals to save money. We are calling for the government urgently to review the funding available to students for day-to-day living costs, and calling on all parties to commit to reinstating maintenance grants at a level reflecting increased inflation since they were abolished. 

Not only is reversing Osborne’s abominable decision the right thing to do, but it is hugely popular with the public and will help close the wealth gap. To stand back and do nothing while inflation takes its toll risks undoing two decades of patiently accumulated gains in social mobility around education. Does any politician want that on their CV? 

 

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, and chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation

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