Restore grant system for poor students, urges Russell Group chief
Ministers must reinstate maintenance grants for poor students wanting to go to university, the head of the group representing the leading universities has urged.
UK students from low-income families were awarded up to £3,387 a year until 2016 and the restoration of the grant system would make a “substantial difference” to people who were “nervous” about student debt, according to Tim Bradshaw, the chief executive of the Russell Group.
“I think if you give a grant to those students then you might encourage even more to consider applying for university in the first place and think it is actually something they can really aspire to – and that it won’t land them in additional debt at the end of the day,” he told the Independent.
The Russell Group, an association of 24 leading research universities in the UK, will recommend providing a “living wage” grant for students eligible for free school meals following criticism that the top universities do not admit enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It could be very targeted, really cost-effective and actually make quite a substantial difference to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may inherently be very nervous about taking on an additional loan,” he said. “Actually the grant could work in their favour.”
When asked whether the loss of maintenance grants, coupled with £9,250 annual tuition fees, could be dissuading students from poorer backgrounds going to university, Bradshaw conceded: “Yes it might be. The student loans system is very complicated and difficult to understand.”
The grants were replaced in the 2016-17 academic year by loans which students would start paying back when they earned more than £21,000 a year.
In effect, this means that the poorest students – whose parents are unable to supplement their loan, or indeed help them repay their loans – face an even greater burden of debt after their studies, which could amount to about £58,000 for a three-year course.
This could also put them off from studying in the most expensive parts of the country, such as London and Oxford.
The Russell Group has been told it needs “to go further” in improving access for disadvantaged pupils with just 6.5% of students in last year’s intake from the poorest parts of the country.
But Bradshaw said the government ought to make more funding available to achieve this rather than “putting all the blame on universities”.
Earlier this year, Theresa May conceded: “We now have one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world” as she announced a review into post-18 education funding and pledged to make it fairer.
The then chancellor George Osborne said the grants had become “unaffordable” when he scrapped them in the 2015 budget.
He said it was a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them”, as he announced the changes that would be “fair to students, fair to taxpayers and vital to secure our long-term economic future”.
However, Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust – a leading educational charity – said the reforms could put many low- and middle-income students off the idea of going to university.
In a speech on social mobility last week, the education secretary, Damian Hinds said it was “not acceptable” that 18-year-old applicants from the most well-off parts of the UK remain “nearly five-and-a-half times more likely” to go to the most selective universities than their disadvantaged peers.