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

Originally posted at http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jun/15/working-class-students-maintenance-grant-cuts

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.

 

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