CUSU up in arms at ‘devastating’ cuts to grants for disadvantaged students

Colm Murphy 11 July 2015

Chancellor George Osborne has announced that maintenance grants are to be scrapped from next year, provoking anger from student activists.

During Wednesday’s summer budget, Osborne also indicated that tuition fees of top universities, presumably including Cambridge, could in future rise with inflation beyond the current £9,000-per-year limit.

The Chancellor said that scrapping the grants from September 2016 was necessary because the projected cost of the current scheme is set to rise to £3 billion by the end of the decade, mainly because of the lifting of the cap on student numbers.

He argued that there is a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.

“If we don’t tackle this problem, then universities will become underfunded and our students won’t get places, and I’m not prepared to let that happen.”

Currently, over half a million students with low family incomes in England benefit from maintenance grants, at a cost of £1.7 billion per year. The maximum possible amount awarded is £3,387 per year, accessible to students with a family income of £25,000 or less, and they are not repaid by the recipient. Grants are not awarded to those with a family income greater than £42,620.

The policy has provoked fury among some Cambridge students. CUSU Access and Funding Officer Helena Blair released a strongly worded statement in response. She called the policy a “devastating attack on the aspirations of poorer students” and said CUSU were “deeply angered” by the announcement.

She continued: “The Government's message is clear: it has little opinion of young people, especially those already facing social and financial disadvantage.

"This action will undoubtedly result in fewer students attending university who are from financially-disadvantaged backgrounds.”

                           Placard from 2010 student protests against tuition fees. Image: Bob Bob

Daniel Zeichner, the newly elected Labour MP for Cambridge, also attacked the policy: “I know from speaking to students first hand, the money these grants offer is often the difference between students getting to study in Cambridge or not. Scrapping them will hit the poorest hardest, risk putting university out of reach and so ultimately harm potential academic breakthroughs and risk future prosperity.

“Slamming the door to University for thousands is not the answer to the economic or social problems Britain faces.”

The Chair of the Cambridge Universities Labour Club, Rory Weal, added: “Without maintenance grants, studying at Cambridge would have simply been unaffordable for myself and many of my peers. The government is lumbering low income students with yet more debt and pushing a good education out of reach for many.”

Former MP Dr Julian Huppert also criticised the government's plan, commenting: "We should be helping and supporting students and young people, giving more support to those in need, not making it harder. This budget, the first after the Coalition ended, has got it wrong."

However not everyone in Cambridge attacked the proposal. A historian, and member of the Conservative Party, told The Cambridge Student: “The scrapping of maintenance grants is not a reduction in the amount of money poorer students will receive.

“It means wealthier graduates will pay more in the long term, helping to plug a gap created by less fortunate graduates who never pay back their entire loan. This is a method for the government to raise revenue without the need for a graduate tax.”

The Russell Group, of which Cambridge University is a member, released a statement in reaction to the budget. It failed to address the controversial maintenance grant announcement, but enthusiastically welcomed the possibility of linking tuition fees to inflation. This potential fee rise would apply to students attending a university deemed to offer high quality teaching from 2017/18 onwards.

Director Wendy Piatt stated: “We welcome the announcement that from 2017/18 tuition fees will increase in line with inflation for universities that provide excellent teaching.

“Russell Group universities are committed to providing an outstanding student experience but since 2012 inflation has eaten into the value of funding available. Next year, £9,000 tuition fees will be worth only £8,200 in 2012 terms and universities are already having to do more with less. Good teaching and world-class facilities require proper investment and indexing the fees cap to inflation is a crucial step towards the long-term sustainability of the UK’s leading universities.

“However, it is vital that appropriate measures are used to judge teaching excellence, without adding to the regulatory burden on universities or stifling innovation.”

TCS has asked the University of Cambridge for comment on both proposals, and is awaiting a response.