The current Conservative government, and the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government previously, have never been popular amongst young students, and this rift is set to widen once more following the announcement that maintenance grants will become loans from 2016/17 onwards.
Maintenance grants, issued by the Government to students of a low-income background via a means-tested system, provide a support that allows people of all financial backgrounds to study without prejudice at UK universities. I, myself, had access to such grants and, due to my parents’ combined income during my time at university, was awarded the maximum grant amount; a happy surprise, meaning that I didn’t have to get a part-time job to keep my costs down during my first and subsequent years of study. Without this grant, coupled with the now £9,000 tuition fees, I would have had to think long and hard about whether or not enrolling in university would be worth it in the long term.
Looking at the way that the UK higher education industry is gradually changing to a more market-based offering, as opposed to a public sector industry, so come increasing competition and pricing as universities begin to think, and act, as businesses. Turning to an Americanised system of extortionate college fees is a worrying trend and not a road down which the world-renowned UK higher education industry should tread further. Pricing students out or – worse still – forcing students from low-income backgrounds to take on £50,000 worth of debt to ensure their futures are secure and well-paid is not something that should be condoned or promoted.
Balancing the books is another matter, different for the Government and individual universities alike. Removing the strain of issuing 500,000 maintenance grants to eligible students – estimated to be around £1.57bn by a governmental report in 2015 will defer the impending cocktail of problems that will hit the UK with regard to students and higher education to 10-20 years down the line instead. This looks good for the current Government as less money is being spent which always looks better, but instead of dealing with the problems of a system creaking under bad policy and a wildly-ranging estimates of expenditure and return here and now. A longer term strategy would be a review into how the current system works, what the flaws are and effective, cross-party work to ensure that higher education doesn’t return to becoming a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.
One quote always springs to mind when thinking about the spiralling price of higher education; ‘Imagine if the cure for cancer was locked in the mind of a person who did not attend university because they simply couldn’t afford the cost’. To see differences in higher education policy around the world, you need only fly across the Channel to Germany to see how different the university sector can be run. Over 2.5 million students across 387 universities in Germany – both public and private – the vast majority of universities, and all those that are state-owned, are free to study at. Look to Scandinavia, albeit to a smaller and more agile system; Denmark. Education is of such importance in Denmark that citizens can receive university education up to PhD level, completely free of charge from the state. If you are an EU citizen, as well as Danish nationals, you can receive a stipend to cover the majority of your living expenses to ensure that you can spend as much of your time as possible studying and not working to make ends meet.
So what can the UK’s higher education industry learn from other European countries? That raising costs incurred whilst removing the safety blanket on which many students, past and present, have to support them through incredibly important and formative university years, will give the government in power in a decade or two’s time a huge hangover of problems. Within the next decade or so, you will see the majority of sitting MPs that will have a student loan to pay off to some extent. It might only be after this point that the system will be changed for the better.