On Friday morning, I was invited to chat on BBC 5Live about what I thought to the Conservative Party’s latest proposals to improving university education. As a working-class student who relied on a university maintenance grant in order to complete my degree, I wanted to express my concerns with a system that has removed maintenance grants, and according to the NUS, means that 35% less people from disadvantaged backgrounds would attend university without the stipend.
Although I think that the maintenance grant removal is corrosive and a tawdry punitive strategy that targets the vulnerable, there are even further causes for concern in the government’s latest proposals. The government intends to introduce ‘standards of teaching excellence’ in which it will mark and reward universities for their performance. If these institutions satisfy these tick boxes, they will be allowed to increase their tuition fees through ‘performance interest’. Although this interest rate is said to allow universities to introduce higher rates by hundreds, rather than thousands of pounds, the introduction of this system is a gateway to further inequalities not only amongst students, but amongst British institutions themselves.
In reality, a lot of working-class students who attend university will not be attending Russell Group institutions, nor Oxbridge. Although sparse, yet generous grants can be awarded to those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the vast majority of working-class students tend to study at the university most local to them, for financial and transitional ease. As these students-to-be tend to live in impoverished areas, the universities that are close by also struggle with that difficulty. The University of East London, for example, 98% of the its students are from state schools, with two thirds of their students being from BME backgrounds, and 67% from the local area. Attending university is all relative to a working-class student, and financial constraints as well as a potential lack of support at home when money needs to be made will come into play. In consequence, the government’s desire to make traditional university students even richer will feature repercussions in its student body, with many believing that extra debt is a necessary, yet unaffordable evil in order to attend the highest ranked universities, whilst those who attend non-canonized institutions will be financially deprived of resources, and stigmatized for their attendance of certain institutions without context.
When the hordes say that most won’t even see the debt to pay it off, and if they do, it will be in negligible amounts, they are seeing the world through the eyes of stable, upper and middle-class families. I left university with a £2000 overdraft in spite of working 20 hours a week alongside my degree, and spending my summers working 60-hour weeks in a local factory. When I finally begin my job, salaried at £18,000 per annum, I will be paying roughly £100 off my debt each month, and with the creeping interest rate of an overdraft, council tax, and the need to save for my Masters degree to further develop my career, I am under immense strain to do so. Even still, I am in a better position than most. Many students are faced with dire employment prospects – for not enough jobs exist for even the most Tory-approved employables – leading to better off graduates to rely on their connections, their position in a capital city to unleash potential networking opportunities, as well as unpaid internships being a viable option for those who have adequate financial support. Changes to the loan system would not have been made if it meant that the Student Loans Company kept the same amount, or lost money.
Perhaps the green paper is nothing more than a distraction tactic. At my old University, University of Leeds, the institution is seeing its disability allowance budget slashed by £1 million, which will drastically hinder the institution’s ability to support disabled students. The 3% rise in working-class people attending university does not take into account the position of where the students from disadvantaged backgrounds end up after university, nor does it take into account that the reputations of the universities these students attend can mean so much more than those from these backgrounds initially think. The government may intend to give more institutions the ability to award degrees, but it doesn’t take into account the inherent disparity between these institutions. In fact, it is concerned with taking the money from these institutions, rather than tackling the inherent inequalities in its original benefactors.
I am incredibly concerned about proposals that are the kin of a rhetoric that wants to show the education’s ‘best value for money’. This errant marketisation of the higher education system acts as an eerie Americanisation of the British university system, in which students opt for fiscal viability rather than where they can receive the best quality education. As working-class students are encouraged to attend university without little knowledge of what institution suits their needs, as well as a lack of immediate financial support, they are challenged to hedge their bets with the roulette wheel of British university education. I cannot support a system which seeks to heighten disparity, as the government continues to take from those who have the least, to give those who already have the most even more.