Is the UK heading towards a US style Higher Education system? (or The one where I try to remain balanced about the budget)

I’ve been putting this post off for a while now as I didn’t want to rush in all guns blazing. As most of you are probably aware, the Chancellor George Osborne has recently released his Emergency Budget, and reviews have been, shall we say… mixed.

For big corporations and people with an eye on inheriting a substantial amount from their parents, things are looking up. However, for students, and especially students from less well-off backgrounds, it was a bit of a kick in the teeth.

In brief:

  • No more maintenance grants
  • Some universities will be allowed to charge more than £9000 a year
  • And the threshold at which you begin paying back your student debt is set to be frozen for five years (e.g. it will no longer rise with inflation).

My first reaction was to flip a table obviously, but I’m willing to take a breath and play devil’s advocate for a second.

Firstly, maintenance grants are going but will be replaced with greater loans – students who would have previously qualified for a grant will now be able to borrow up to £8009 from the government instead. Now, from Osborne’s perspective this isn’t too bad of a change. Students who need the money will still be able to get it, they’ll just have to pay it back at the end.

But how much debt are we talking here?

Well for a student who qualifies for the full maintenance loan whilst studying in London this would mean a ball park figure of around £50,000. True you don’t have to pay the debt until you are earning over £21,000 a year, but just take a moment to imagine what a burden it’s going to be for students who come from households where paying the rent each month might be a struggle, to sign up to that much debt.

And it’s not as if not going to uni would be a much better option either, as the government is scrapping housing benefits for those aged 18-21, and you won’t qualify for the new so-called Living Wage until you’re 25. Why a 24 year old and a 25 year old doing the same work should qualify for different pay is beyond me but there you go.

So unless like Osborne you’re in line to inherit three baronetcies, it’s not looking that great.

Secondly, we have the issue of rising tuition fees. Now here I get a little stuck, because I completely understand that the cost of educating students will go up with inflation so it kind of makes sense that fees would go up with it as well. However, if only top universities are allowed to increase their fees (and bear in mind that these are institutions which are typically already receiving a lot of money from alumni and corporate sponsors) then we could reach a situation in which students might feel that they should choose a more affordable university rather than a top ranking, more expensive one – the American Higher Education system in a nutshell.

However, I also don’t think I wish to be seen as advocating a rise in all tuition fees… I’ll be honest, I don’t really have an answer for this one.

All of this stems from austerity of course, and I could write a completely separate post about all my issues with that (although I won’t, I promise), but even if you thought that the policy of reducing public spending was the way out of the UK’s problems, then this still feels like a direct attack on young people.

The government argues that we need to vastly reduce our deficit so as to avoid saddling future generations with debt… a statement which runs completely contrary to their budget plans which will see young people more in debt than ever.

What is even more maddening is that whilst students are being asked to fork out more and more money, corporate tax is being reduced. Now in the case of small businesses I completely support this, but giving a tax break to giant companies such as Amazon when they owe the UK billions is ludicrous. Even the most conservative of estimates say that the UK loses at least four times the amount of money to tax evasion as we do to benefit fraud, but which one makes it into the papers?

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that yet again we are seeing the interests of the wealthy and few being put before the interests of the very people who are going to have to work the UK out of this financial crisis.

The Conservatives want to be the party which promotes aspiration, but right now the young people of the UK are feeling more alienated than ever.

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