Osborne attacks the poorest students

Submitted by Matthew on 15 July, 2015 - 12:27 Author: James Elliott, NCAFC National Committee

George Osborne’s budget promised that higher education fees will rise in line with inflation, and that grants will be abolished for the poorest students.

The budget document states: “institutions offering high teaching quality [will be allowed] to increase their tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017-18, with a consultation on the mechanisms to do this.”

This is in line with concerns about new Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s speech to Universities UK, in which he talked about “incentives” for quality teaching, and said that they will be published in a Green Paper in the autumn.

This is directly linked to Jo Johnson’s Teaching Excellence Framework, which will assess the teaching quality at institutions based on “outcome-focused” metrics which Johnson explicitly said will include employment data.

This is likely to mean that graduate earnings will be used to “prove” quality teaching, and that those institutions where students go on to get the best-paying jobs such as Oxford, Cambridge and London colleges, will be allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation.

The Times Higher Education’s John Morgan analysed what this might mean, predicting that once the Conservatives have passed “English Votes for English Laws”, they may be in a better position to get a rise in fees for English universities through Parliament. At that point those that do well in his new Teaching Excellence Framework may be allowed to raise fees.

The other, uglier possibility, is that Johnson and Osborne are openly goading students and the NUS with the talk of higher fees to see what our response is. If it is muted silence and a few grumbles, they will give in to what their Vice-Chancellor friends have been demanding for years, and allow a rise in fees to £11,000 (Labour’s guess at Tories’ desires before the election), £16,000 (Oxford’s demand), or beyond that towards uncapped fees (as the Browne report in 2010 recommended).

The Budget also stated, “From the 2016-17 academic year, maintenance grants will be replaced with maintenance loans for new students from England, paid back only when their earnings exceed £21,000 a year, saving £2.5 billion by 2020-21.” Currently, students in England and Wales from families with annual household incomes of £25,000 or less qualify for maintenance grants of £3,387 a year; if the family’s income is £30,000, the grant falls to £2,441; at £35,000 to £1,494 and at £40,000 to £547. It is not paid when household income is more than £42,620.

This is a direct swipe at the poorest students in education, and makes a mockery of Tories’ talk about “access” and increasing the number of working-class students in education by 2020.

In NCAFC we think that problems caused by the rising costs of student loans, and the expanding costs of education as more people continue study, can be solved easily: by taking the vast wealth in the pockets of the rich and business into democratic control by heavily taxing them and using those taxes to pay for high-quality, lifelong learning for everyone. Education should be free to all, including living grants, so that students leave without debt.

That vision is anathema to the party of finance capital, and “too radical” for the increasingly-conservative Labour leadership. We will only see the society we want if we resist these attacks on education.

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