Over the past decade, students in England have been subjected to a deluge of reforms that have made their lives worse. It started in 2012, when the Coalition Government’s decision to allow universities to triple tuition fees to £9,000 a year came into effect. It continued with the scrapping of maintenance grants in 2016 and the failure of ministers to tackle student housing costs, which have soared 60% since 2011.
Now, in a long-awaited response to the 2019 Augar review of education after 18 years, Boris Johnson’s government is proposing further changes that have gone unnoticed – and we can’t let him get away with it.
Under plans, announced by Universities Minister Michelle Donelan on February 24, he wants to introduce minimum entry requirements to prevent students who do not get a pass in English and Maths GCSEs or 2 Are in A-levels to access student loans. He says that social mobility is not achieved by pushing young people to university, but that completely misses the point. Proposals will select those who struggle with certain academic subjects, but whose talent will shine in a specialized area later in their school career. How many graduates do we know who couldn’t have gone to college because they didn’t hit these arbitrary targets? It will not be the young people of the rural cities who will suffer the effects, but those of the cities.
It is part of a set of ideological, regressive and immoral measures, which amount to an attack on opportunities. The proposed cap on the number of students for courses deemed “poor quality” – which would limit the number of students who can take courses deemed economically unprofitable – is nothing more than a cover to clip the wings students’ dreams.
That’s not all. Alongside a cost of living crisis, which former government ministers say will create the toughest economic year we have seen in a lifetime, the Tories want to impose an additional £54,000 on student debt. From 2023 they want to reduce the salary threshold at which future graduates repay student loans to £25,000 and extend the repayment period for student loans from 30 to 40 years. With inflation already above 5%, household energy bills set to reach £4,000 by the end of 2022 and incomes facing their biggest drop since the 1970s, it is inconceivable that they are trying to make higher education more expensive. Not only do they prey on today’s undergraduates who will enter an increasingly expensive world, they discourage education – a public good that serves all of society.
Since when has forcing millions of young people into debt for the rest of their lives been a smart business model? Students have been an afterthought throughout the pandemic, but this is a new low. Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, was right: students deserve better.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it can’t be that bad. They had to offer sweetener to make things more manageable? Unfortunately not. Despite all the flaws in the review, Augar made it clear that any higher education reform must be introduced alongside the reintroduction of bursaries for poorer students. The government did not refer to it once when it announced its plans last month.
Radical change is needed, and thousands demanded it during the student strike. I was so proud to participate in the reconstruction of our movement for almost two years that I served as vice-president of the National Union of Students for Higher Education. As I prepare to hand over to our next team of officers, I feel that the NUS has returned to its proudly radical roots during its centenary.
There are still so many things to fight. We will continue to oppose this government’s ideological, regressive and immoral attacks on students. Recent announcements made it clear that we needed something completely different. We must allow ourselves to push for an alternative: a fully funded system accessible to all. This month’s student strike was the start of that journey, but it certainly won’t be the end.