Wave goodbye to maintenance grants, the last stepping stone helping poor kids into uni

Just learn a trade or something. You’re screwed

The entire time I was at university I got the whole package – maintenance loans, grants, bursaries. And until recently, that didn’t seem like a big deal. It seemed like a given. 

It was expected that if you were good enough you would go to uni and maintenance grants were part and package of getting you there, so nobody ever felt embarrassed about it. Loads of my friends, and myself, applied for maintenance grants: people from deprived areas, or who grew up in families with one or both parents out of full time employment, or where they were the first to go to uni. These things didn’t matter and they weren’t dramatic. It wasn’t a Dickensian portrait of poverty: people who get maintenance grants aren’t snivelling Oliver-caricatures or chavs taking taxpayers’ money. They’re just normal students.

With the removal of the cap on fees in 2010, that culture changed slightly. Suddenly the advice wasn’t “if you’re clever enough to go, you can go no matter what”. Instead my younger relatives started to hear “it’s better not to go to Leeds or Newcastle or Bristol, because even though those universities are great, going to England means more money, money that you’ll never manage to repay”, best just stay at home (where fees were still around £3k).

Cheers hun

It’s true that nobody really expects they’ll pay back their student loan, and except for the loud, placard waving shrieking society-joiners at university, once you’re there everyone kind of forgets about it until they graduate and it starts coming out of their wages. Practically speaking, in the respect that everyone has debt when they leave, the change from maintenance grants to loans which need to be repaid isn’t a huge deal. The important thing is the change in mentality. 

There’s no longer a culture of “if you’re good enough, you’ll get there no matter what”. Instead the decision to go is muddled by the fact it might not be worth it, that really, you might not be worth it. What’s worrying is not the financial strain of paying back the loan but the message that scrapping the grants sends out. A message that the government, a government Theresa May promised just weeks ago would “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”, has no interest helping people from low-income families getting to university.

Remember, Theresa’s speech? It was her first one, the one where she said: “If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.

“If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

“If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.

“If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few.

“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Yeah, it didn’t last long.

Here is the important thing: Maintenance grants were not free money. They were not a scheme to allow poorer students to get a step up, they were a way to level the playing field. 

It’s easy to imagine that in the gap left by the maintenance grants there will be an increase in the people who previously would have qualified scrambling for scholarships, for bursaries, for part time jobs to supplement their income while studying. It means that rather than levelling the playing field, we’re implementing a bizarre natural selection among working class students, eliminating any but the few who can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. 

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, condemned the scrapping of the grant, which left English graduates with ‘the most debt in the English-speaking world’.

He said: “The abolition of maintenance grants means it is the poorest graduates who are getting the worst deal, with debts of over £50,000 on graduation. It is outrageous that the government has got rid of maintenance grants. It will make it harder to increase the numbers of disadvantaged students at the most selective universities and it will lumber them with massive debts.

“With the access gap at these universities still unacceptably wide, the government should be doing all it can to increase participation, not reduce it.”