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Maintenance grants axed while tuition fees soar proving support for poorer students is dwindling


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It seems that the metaphor of the “ivory tower of academia” is becoming achingly appropriate as the ladders up to higher education are being rapidly removed, making the climb to university steeper and increasingly unmanageable for poorer students.

My Twitter feed was filled with fury once again at the news that the student maintenance grant has been definitively scrapped, marking its entry onto a growing list of axed education policies and support schemes for young people.

This year alone has seen the demise of NHS bursaries, cuts to disabled student allowances and the potential imposition of a new Higher Education Bill, which will open the door to yet further fee hikes, as evidenced by universities such as Durham pre-emptively raising their fees beyond the £9,000 threshold. All the while, government rhetoric is peppered with references to social mobility: Theresa May’s first prime ministerial speech heralded a Britain that worked for everyone, not a select few.

As a student who started university in 2010 (those heady years of £3,500-a-year fees and grants available), I was one of the lucky ones who escaped the imminent tripling of tuition fees and the funding cuts lurking over the horizon. Now I can barely fathom how in six short years, prospects for young people have become so bleak. I look back at my undergraduate years as a kind of bygone era in sepia tones, but I have to remind myself that even during that time, we still had to shoulder considerable debt, maintain part-time jobs and survive on baked bean dinners. What is undeniable however, regardless of my fanciful romanticising of my university years, is that things are certainly regressing rather than progressing.

While Cameron's government claimed that they wanted to double the number of students going to university from disadvantaged backgrounds, these policies are making the road to university a far bumpier one and for many, it will simply mean that they just won’t take that road at all. In a move to be more “fiscally responsible”, the maintenance grants that helped thousands of students keep financially afloat while studying have been replaced by further loans (and deeper debt).

This is particularly tragic as research overwhelmingly shows that students from poorer backgrounds are more debt-averse and the reality of saddling oneself with an even greater debt burden alongside the £9,000 a year fees serves as yet another deterrent to university ambitions.

The game is becoming increasingly rigged: students from lower-income families will be charged more than their wealthier counterparts in order to study, thus disadvantaging them later on with added debts to pay off when they want to build a life for themselves. Sorana Vieru, the National Union of Students’ vice president, snappily summed it up during an interview with BBC Breakfast: “[it] basically punishes poorer students simply for being poor". 

Nevertheless, we should not be despondent. We must loudly decry this move and we must organise and stand up for those who will be affected. This decision was indefensible and, sadly, it will not stop here: the Higher Education Bill proposed is a looming threat and the current government shows no sign of halting its destructive austerity drive, and so as young people we must participate in detailing it. This November, the NUS is planning a mass demonstration in London to call upon the government to stop the marketisation of education in a bid to protect higher education as we know it. So, I beg of you, for our generation and the generations to come, to get involved and make your voices heard.

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