In a rich man’s world…

on the danger of grants to middle income students

Peter Campbell on the danger of grants to middle income students

A debate has raged in the last week over students, and yet again it’s about money.

David Willets, Shadow Universities’ Secretary, and John Denham, Universities’ Secretary, have come to blows over the issue of a new grant package aimed at broadening access to higher education. The £165m package is due to be introduced in September, and concerns the means-tested student maintenance grant. This grant covers living costs, but not fees, and is paid in place of a student loan.

In the Times last Monday, David Willets attacked the governmental package on the grounds that the money would not adequately support lower income families, and actually in reality, of the £165m available, £150m would go to families with above-average incomes, leaving the petit remainder for the poorer students who should actually be the focus of the package.

The proposals were for the package to enable 100,000 extra students from low-income families to have help to pay their way through University. Now I’m no mathematician, but £15m between 100,000 is somewhat short of the grant maximum of £2,835 per student, available for those from families with a household income below £25,000. Even if the entirety of the package went to the poorer background students, then it would amount to a little over half of the maximum grant allowance per student. The government can’t expect to be able to provide the low income students with a full grant each and still attract large numbers of new low income students.

So what? Well, coupled with the recent embarrassment of the 10p tax rate, which Harriet Harman actually admitted on the Today Programme was dealt with far too slowly, this accusation of unfairness simply adds to the government’s ever growing list of things which it needs to sweep under the carpet if it is to come close to pulling off another general election victory. Having a headline-grabbing goal is utterly meaningless if the amount of funding put towards it is far short of the amount genuinely needed to encourage the numbers that the government needs to fulfil its own target.

David Willet’s claim that the government “has given up on spreading opportunity to people from poorest backgrounds”, must have an uncomfortable ring of truth for those who consider that University is “not for them”, but whose real reason is that they are terrified of entering professional life with an obscene amount of unpayable debt.

If the government really wants to help 100,000 low-income students into University, and there are serious questions as to whether that’s a good idea anyway, then they either need to put a lot more money into it, or need to set more realistic goals.

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