As the main conclusions of the government-issued Augar report on further education funding made last week’s headlines, it has become clear that Theresa May will be passing to her successor the task of making serious changes to the student loans system.
The report has left many young people with mixed feelings. Whilst a recommendation to lower the annual fees cap can only be welcomed, lowering tuition fees to £7,500 will do nothing of significance to ease the financial burden of studying for young people from poorer backgrounds.
In the last coalition government, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems were the careful architects of a society where young people whose parents can’t afford to put them through university will be reminded of their misfortune with every paycheck.
It’s baffling that as our national GDP is increasing and technology is becoming faster and cheaper, our further educational system has been beaten into an unrecognisable financial mess. What is even more infuriating is that most of the people who have engineered this system weren’t charged a penny for their degrees and received free money from the government to study.
I’m proud that it’s Green Party policy to fully scrap tuition fees, and give universities the breath of life so desperately needed, through a Business Education Tax. Scrapping tuition fees is not an unreasonable utopian ask to be lumped in with universal basic income or a four-day-week as a wonderful yet distant dream. In Europe, students in Germany, France, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Greece and Spain can study for free. In the context of all of these countries offering young people the opportunity to further their education at no major cost, a drop of £1,750 a year to £7,500 hardly seems cause for celebration.
Too often concerns over tuition fees are dismissed out of hand, with older generations justifying them as a ‘graduate tax’ without anybody questioning why pursuing an education justifies someone paying extra tax, as if they are a burden on public services, or their degree is an exorbitant luxury.
Another frequent argument is that charging for university degrees makes them more valuable, and betters the prospects of those who hold them. This might make sense if only it weren’t completely untrue, based on absolutely no existing evidence of countries with tuition fees having a healthier and more competitive workforce.
There isn’t even any evidence that higher tuition fees are being spent on better teaching, as the past years’ university lecturer strikes brought to attention. At the University of Birmingham, a leading Russell Group University, lecturers were being paid on ‘Sports Direct-style’ contracts, offering academics no job security. Around the same time, the university announced its state-of-the-art Dubai campus, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. The university has not disclosed the exact figure.
A frustrating omission from the report was a commitment to lower interest rates. It is completely to the benefit of the student loans company to keep student loan interest rates high, as they rocket upwards of six per cent, which students are charged not from their graduation, but from the moment they begin studying.
One welcome aspect of the report is the insistence on the return of maintenance grants. Their scrapping by Cameron’s government was an unforgivable attack on the working class. As someone from a lower socio-economic background, I absolutely would not have gone to university if it weren’t for grants. The grants allowed me to pursue my education and obtain my degree from the University of Nottingham. Too many working class students aren’t given the decision to go to university or not. The decision is made for them by a lack of funding.
I am passionate about education. Education exposes us to new ideas, it pushes us to do and be better and offers us opportunities that would not be available otherwise. I believe education is key to unlocking people’s potential. By pricing young people out of university through extortionate fees, interest rates and the scrapping of means-tested grants the government is denying a huge number of young people this opportunity. I would go as far as to say university fees are an attempt to ensure the glass ceiling remains for young people from minority backgrounds.
Liam McClelland is the Green Party’s co-spokesperson for Young People, and Co-chair of the Young Greens.