Blogging at The Guardian: Don’t rob working-class students like me of our grants

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I wear my working-class status with pride. As someone with a strong accent who was born and raised in Hull, I’m not your average university student – and last week’s news that student maintenance grants could be cut by the government reminded me of where I came from.

My family have never been affluent, and when my father was made redundant in 2010, the idea of my sister and me attending university seemed far off. But I made it to the University of Leeds with the help of government funding.

I qualified for the maximum maintenance grant available – over £3,000. This saved me from having to do another summer of 60-hour weeks at the pea factory, while many of my fellow students were on work placements or travelling around the world.

The maintenance grant, a lump sum of non-repayable funding, is essential for lower income students who want to succeed at university. Attending an academic institution as a working-class student is challenging enough already, but without a maintenance grant it would be almost impossible to survive.

University is about a lot more than just obtaining the 2:1 that makes you employable. Getting a degree introduces students to new ways of thinking, friends and connections, social activities, and directions for how to approach adulthood.

Even with maintenance grants, the system is stacked against working-class students. Students from wealthy backgrounds are 10 times more likely to receive a place at university than those from poorer backgrounds, according to education charity the Sutton Trust in 2014.

“Being working-class at university is like knowing you’re the only one tightrope-walking without a safety net,” says Heather Shaw, an English student at the University of Leeds. “Those around you seem to be able to make countless personal and financial mistakes due to nice middle- to upper-class parents willing to bail them out, but I know that if I messed up just once I’d be screwed.”

Shaw says she is less able to enjoy her university experience than many of her peers because of money worries and the need to find a secure job after graduating.

Having less money than others can cause resentment, Shaw admits. “People in seminars brag about saving up for a ‘cheeky ski trip’, while I’m scraping money together so I don’t end up homeless after my course ends.”

Rosie Ramsden, who is studying for a master’s in English at the University of Leeds, has never felt more in the minority than she has at university. “Returning to uni after a three-month stint working shifts at a fish factory, I was shocked to walk through campus and overhear tales of leisurely trips to South America and South-East Asia.”

Ramsden adds: “Apart from my small group of friends, who all spent the summer working to fund their university living, it seemed like everyone around me came from a background completely alien to me.”

Tom Dixon, a sabbatical officer at the University of Leeds who receives a maintenance loan for his politics degree, says: “I’ve spent my entire life watching people who are less deserving being handed things on a plate just because of what they were born into.

“Any move to cut or abolish maintenance grants will just mean fewer well-meaning and deserving people from poorer areas will get the opportunity to go to university and develop their passions.”

Without a maintenance grant Dougie Phillips, who studied forestry as an undergraduate at Bangor University, gained a master’s at Cardiff and is studying for a doctorate at Leeds, would never have applied to university. “The thought of doing a degree would not have crossed my mind. I’m now a PhD student with my academic success being built upon the foundations of my undergraduate degree.

“I grew up in a poor, working-class household and was the first member of my family to complete a degree. Since graduating from Bangor, I have attended two Russell Group universities and will hopefully go on to have a successful and prosperous career.”

Phillips adds: “It’s scary to think about where I am now and where I would have been without receiving the financial support of a maintenance grant.”

I am part of the first generation in my family to attend university, and this wasn’t because my older family members would have struggled with completing a degree course. They couldn’t even consider going because they had to financially support themselves and the rest of family – with the weight of potential debt a firm deterrent.

This missed opportunity made my parents determined to ensure that my sister and I would be able to attend university, whatever the cost. If we had a sibling still at school, it looks like they’d be robbed of the chance.



General Election 2015: An interview with Yorkshire First

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Although the name strikes a resemblance to a fascist collective we’d all soon rather forget, Yorkshire First say that they come in peace. Formed in 2014, the party are determined to devolve God’s Own Country from the rest of the UK. Scoring 1.5% of the EU vote last year, in, well, Yorkshire, the party are now challenging the big three in the general election to ‘hurt the ballot box’.

Dr Bob Buxton is a Physics teacher at Leeds City College, and is a standing candidate for Leeds North West for Yorkshire First.

I spoke to Bob about his enthusiasm for railways, the barons that are running Yorkshire, and his love of Germany and Switzerland.

How did you first get involved in politics?

Quite a few years ago, I was a Conservative. I campaigned around Leeds unsuccessfully. I didn’t join one year, with their stance on tuition fees being quite a big one for me. But being Yorkshire First isn’t about being anti-Labour, anti-Conservative or anti-Liberal. It’s just a central belief that Yorkshire should have control over its own affairs. If you look at the spending per head to London and the South East. We’re not getting a fair share. We pay the same taxes and the same rates, but we’re just not getting the same back.

So you wouldn’t say the party lies on any political spectrum?

No, just the opposite. It’s not left nor right, it’s just a matter of taking the right decisions. It’s a good cause to follow. You’re allowed to have a certain degree of independence in Yorkshire First. You just need to believe in devolution, the Bell principle of politics, and then, within reason, form your own local campaign. No, just the opposite. It’s not left nor right, it’s just a matter of taking the right decisions. We want people to be below the poverty line, so I suppose that’s left-wing. That’s just humane, in fact.

Individual candidates, within reason, can sort out their own, localised, manifesto. I’m very hot on local topics, transport especially. The airport link from Leeds Bradford to the city centre still hasn’t happened. That was in the master plan eleven years ago. We might have well-meaning local politicians, but they can’t make it happen. It is devolution because we need it.

Would these decisions be made by city by city, or for the county as a whole?

If I was living in Lancashire, I’d want devolution in Lancashire. A lot of people in Cornwall want devolved powers, so we’ve worked closely with them. If you look at Germany, they got rid of tuition fees. If you look at Scotland, they never introduced them in the first place. Greater localisation means greater accountability. It isn’t a unique idea at all. In Switzerland, half of public spending is with your town council and your parish council, never mind your city council. It’s the bottom up. You spend money locally and Switzerland has a great economy. An individual MP can’t say ‘ooh that’s the party line I can’t do anything about that’. People can’t make excuses.

People in the North do have their concerns regarding Westminster-centric politics. Do you think there was a defining moment when enough was enough?

A lady in the Arndale (shopping centre in Leeds) said she could remember a home rule for Yorkshire campaign. People have made this argument in Scotland since the Thirties. People haven’t been so bothered about this in the past because it’s the information age. People now know that it’s £5500 per person spent on transport in London, whereas it’s 10% of that per person in Yorkshire. Hopefully people are starting to realise now that the powers that we have just aren’t enough. We have a handful of barons running Yorkshire. We’re a first rate county, we want first rate devolution, not a third-class excuse for it. London are spending three quarters of a million on a garden bridge. Couldn’t we spend that money on railways? That makes more sense to me.

Would Yorkshire get its own First Minister? Would we have our own capital?

We’d have a First Minister of some kind, whatever the title is — we haven’t decided on that yet. I’d want a European style top-up system, where you’d vote for individual candidates — if you want me to really go off on that, I can do — I’m not scared of coalitions. Coalitions are not necessarily a bad thing. I’d rather see coalitions and people voting for a greater degree of independence. You wouldn’t have one person, like the all-powerful Tony Blair for example. We’d have a First Minister, if that’s the name we end up with.

We don’t want a new capital city. We’d be Leeds-centric instead of London-centric. We don’t want an updated version of the feudal system. We certainly wouldn’t want any grandeur like that, oh no!

Where does Westminster fit in?

First of all, it doesn’t mean abolishing Westminster at all. The scale of politics goes from your local council to even the UN. We wouldn’t get sidetracked, like Scotland did, by a very expensive parliament building. There’s no reason why we can’t use current existing buildings. The council building isn’t that busy. There’s six full council days a year. I don’t want to swap London-centric for Leeds-centric. We could have some meetings in Sheffield, and all around the county, that’s not a problem.

A lot of people say ‘we don’t want more politicians’. No, we don’t. We need fewer city and borough councils. We need to reduce the number of politicians by about a thousand. The reduction would mean an increase in their effectiveness. I would like to have a better system than first past the post though.

Why should people vote for Yorkshire First?

I want devolution for all of the UK, quite simply. Each region has to decide how they want to do that. If you want devolution everywhere, vote for Yorkshire First, because that’s how it’s going to happen. For international students, it’s important to vote for us too. The government wants to attack skilled foreign graduates, and I find that to be absolutely bizarre. It’s polite xenophobia to the point of self-harm. If we don’t have foreign students in the country, who’s going to run the NHS? We need engineers as well. Teaching — well there’s a massive shortage of skills there. International students won’t want to study here, and education is one of our biggest exports. We have nine out of ten of the poorest areas in Northern Europe, even though we’re one of the wealthiest nation in the world.

Quite simply, some people might say that you are mad.

What I think is insane is that we have 10.7% of the transport infrastructure spending of London, that’s what’s insane to me. Most people probably don’t know that stat. Subsidy spending is a third of what London and the South East gets. People laughed at the SNP in previous decades. If people get to know the stats, they’ll know what’s mad. First they hate you, then they laugh at you, then you win.

‘I’m looking you in the eye and saying it’s going to happen’ — The Gryphon meets Ed Miliband

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Labour leader Ed Miliband recently announced that if his party come into power, tuition fees will be reduced from to £6000 a year. Addressing a crowd of young people at the Leeds College of Music, the aspiring Prime Minister aims to catch the youth vote on the back of the coalition’s 2010 tripling of fees, one which Ed called ‘the biggest betrayal of students in modern British history’. Is the Labour leader full of political fluff or truly concerned for the student plight? Editor-In-Chief Jasmine Andersson investigates.

Why did you come to Leeds to announce the youth pledge?

I think that Leeds students are great students — I would say that, wouldn’t I! I think it’s really important to say to Leeds students that there is a party that understands what they are going through. Times have been tough and I think people have been desperate for a party that will stand up for students, and we are, and that’s why we’re going to cut the tuition fees. That’s why we’re going to increase the grant and I think it’s absolutely the right choice, and it’s the fair choice. Yes it says the richest in our society are going to pay a bit more, but I think that’s a fair thing to do and it’s great to be in Leeds to do it.

Of course, we’ve seen a pledge happen before. We saw 2010, in which the coalition government tripled fees to £9000. How can you comfort students like me who have been disillusioned by tuition fee promises and want to know that the pledge matters?

Well, that’s why I’ve done what I’ve done. Years ago I made the statement about £6000 and lots of people said, ‘he’s not going to keep the promise. Once he’s in that position, he’s not going to keep the promise. I am going to keep the promise. That’s why I’ve given you an unconditional promise today. This is going to happen, no ifs, no buts, Nick Clegg… this is going to happen. I’m looking you in the eye and saying it’s going to happen. I want to restore people’s faith in politics. One of the ways we’re going to do that is by carrying out what we’ve promised.

Critics have come forward and said that education should be free, and that the pledge doesn’t go far enough. What would you say to those people?

Obviously we’d always want to go further, and that’s why I said for the longer term we’d look towards the graduate tax. I think it’s right that we do that. People know it’s tough times, and people want to know that we get it, and we get the circumstances that people are facing. People don’t want skyless icons, and they had that with Nick Clegg. But let’s not have pie in the sky promises. Let’s have something we can meet. That’s what we’ve done today.

Right-wing parties are illustrating a predilection for the sciences over the arts. Are the sciences more important?

I think it’s really important that this is an across the board fee cap. There was a really good question from the audience about the importance of the arts subjects. Creative subjects are incredibly important to the future of our country. I take this incredibly seriously, and spoke earlier on in the week about the importance of the arts. I don’t have two classes of subjects in my mind. I think it’s really important that we help all students in all subjects.

Students graduating this year will have paid £9000 fees and will graduate with the looming threat of unpaid internships and unaffordable housing. What can Labour do for them?

We want to make a difference to unpaid internships, and we’re going to have more to say about this in the coming weeks. I think it’s really important to distinguish the difference between internships and employment. When you’re working month after month after month on no wage you’re technically employed, and that doesn’t create a great future for our young people. We are going to have to look at it, so watch this space.