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The Budget and Student Fees: Give My Head Peace.

Students demonstrating to oppose a plan to remove the cap on fees
in Belfast in 2011.
Ironically, marching past the satirical ‘Give My Head Peace’
The government budget will be proclaimed in parliament on 22nd November 2017 (1) and there is considerable anticipation of possible U-turns on austerity. Leaks about their intentions for the NHS and housing have emerged in the last few days. How, or indeed if, student funding will be reformed remains uncertain. Needless to say, there has been a flurry of activity from various interested parties.

The most likely outcome is that a major review will be announced. This is likely to be reported in time for the Conservative election manifesto in the New Year as another election looms.

The student protests last week are very significant in this scenario; yet were relatively under reported for some reason. The Guardian (2) and New Statesman (3) were observant enough to offer an analysis of the deteriorating situation. The student protests have added to the pressure being slowly applied by the recently launched NUS ‘Poverty Commission’ campaign that is fuelled by the drive and intense commitment of its National President, Shakira Martin (4). This alone is bound to increase the embarrassment of a government that has lost touch with its citizens. The chancellor himself has amply demonstrated his detachment from reality by stating this week on the BBC that: “There are no unemployed people” (5). Could he mean that there are more people either “not economically active” or in fact students? Perhaps worse and that the 1.4 million people actually unemployed are not to be considered as people and unlikely to vote?

What are the Government’s political objectives?
The Treasury Committee in the House of Commons has hurriedly started an inquiry into the funding of Universities which concentrates almost entirely on the financial implications (6). The committee appeared to be bamboozled by the evidence from Andrew McGettigan who has contributed much common sense since his prophetic analysis of 2013: “The Great University Gamble” (7). When asked what he would do, his answer: “It depends on what your political objective is” left observers with a sense that perhaps the government does not know what its political objective is; or worse it doesn’t want the rest of us to know what it is. McGettigan’s conclusion is that student loans are a convenient means for the government to spend money without the spend appearing on the balance book of the government as debt. If that is the only political objective, then it seems to work. That is up until the government is caught out. After the last general election, they have now realised that our younger citizens, who bear the massive hidden debt over time, will definitely vote against it in a coming election.
Meanwhile a longer and wider inquiry into the ‘Economics of Higher, Further and Technical Education’ by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee has much further to go (8). Both inquiries are ongoing and are serving to expose the considerable mess that has emerged across the UK. Lower fees in Northern Ireland, a mixture of fees and grants in Wales and no fees in Scotland imply that a different political logic is being applied in the different jurisdictions. These are being applied to what are essentially similar students with exactly the same needs. Both inquiries leave one with a profound sense that the fate of the individual students themselves is a secondary consideration to the various political objectives.

Divergence across the UK:
The situation is Scotland has been amply reported in by Lucy Hunter-Blackburn (9). As the former head of Higher Education for the Scottish Government, and now PhD Student at Edinburgh University, she has exposed the fallacy of having no fees in assisting social mobility and helping students from lower income backgrounds. Indeed the reverse appears to be evident as richer students benefit more and avail themselves of the opportunity. The replacement of maintenance grants with loans is one obvious constraining factor for lower income students that is compounded by the lower value of loans offered in Scotland. This is naturally fuelling demands for better grants to be provided (10). The situation of maintenance funding for students is worse in Northern Ireland and this fuels the need for many students to take on even more part-time work during term time. They simply have no choice when their families cannot back them.

The plight of working students:
Looming over the whole inexcusable confusion generated by the government is scrutiny by the Sutton Trust. This organisation, and founding benefactor Sir Peter Lampl, sheds light upon and then challenges the policies of government. With a singular determination they champion the plight of students, and would be students, from lower income backgrounds. Its timely report released last week ‘Fairer Fees’ (14) demolishes any notion of existing fairness by showing that the poorest graduates emerge from university with debts over a third higher than those from better-off homes. The crisis in part-time student numbers is addressed along with the huge access gap that exists in the leading universities. It concludes that: “The government should implement its promised review of higher education funding. Our proposed solution would be to introduce a system of means-tested fees”.

The role of increasing levels of part-time working on students is quietly ignored in many reports despite clear evidence to the contrary. The timely Higher Education Academy UK Engagement Survey in the last few days reveals that the percentage of students that worked during the term had risen from 43% in 2015 to 52% this year (11). This makes it a major factor in, and contributor to, the economics of funding Higher Education across the UK. It however reduces the amount of time students have to study and thus reach their full potential. It is a stark reality for many poorer students. Despite a lack of data (some might say deliberate), those from lower income backgrounds are obviously burdened by part-time jobs as a matter of necessity. The consequence is that they achieve lower degree grades (12) and as a result end up earning less after graduating whilst having to pay back more. 

Looking under the rock of government policy:
A report last week from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (12) piles on further pressure by concluding that “Student finance reforms, which reduce graduate debt levels, typically benefit high earning graduates the most”. It also reports that students from lower income backgrounds go on to earn between 10-20% less after five years than their richer peers. Indeed, students from richer backgrounds, who did the same subject at the same university, earn around 10% more than their peers from less well-off backgrounds. A BBC report (13) concluded the blindingly obvious that: “improving access to university alone is not enough to address issues of social mobility." Those from better off households are much more likely to go to university and then go onto earn much more. All else being equal, they have more time and resources to study and the confidence that a family safety net brings. Lower income students begin their climb more cautiously with no safety net and alone that is a disincentive.

The financial burden on lower income students across the UK, exacerbated by a move to a loans based system, is clearly counter to an apparent drive to reverse the decline in upward social mobility. Perversely, government policy seems designed to make the situation worse to the point that most observers now see student loans as a disincentive and a tax on social mobility. The whole setup reeks of inequality that would have been obvious from the outset. The idea of the government indulging in deliberate social engineering in favour of the middle classes emerges as one possible political objective.






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12. Callender, Claire. 2008. “The Impact of Term-Time Employment on Higher Education Students’ Academic Attainment and Achievement.” Journal of Education Policy 23(4):359–77.

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