It’s official. From September 2017 some universities, including University of Nottingham, will be allowed to charge students over £9,000 to access higher education. This parliamentary decision has naturally provoked outrage amongst student communities. However, the backlash has not resorted to large-scale protests like the ones seen in 2012.

Tuition fees were first introduced across the UK in 1998. Students back then had to pay £1,000 per year for the privilege of attending higher education institutions. Therefore, a standard three-year university course cost just £3,000 in the late 1990s. Current students pay three times this amount just for one year of study. And just to rub salt into the wound, many current students’ parents and lecturers attended university for free. My father went to university in the late 1970s free of charge and was actually paid by the government to go, as part of a scheme to encourage university attendance.

“A standard three-year university course cost just £3,000 in the late 1990s”

These current proposed fee increases were announced by the Universities Minster, Jo Johnson. Being a bearer of bad news clearly runs in the family. Durham University even advertised the fact they would be charging £9,250 per year before the changes had been confirmed by Mr Johnson. The government claim this rise in university fees will encourage more competition and better customer value for students. Westminster are very much taking the stance that high quality teaching comes at a cost. It’s just frustrating that this cost is constantly being passed onto students.

How does this seem fair? Surely £9,000 is a large enough figure already. Unless graduate salaries increase at the same rate as tuition fees do, how can this possibly be fair on a generation who, for the first time in history, are on average likely to be less affluent than their parents? The government can regurgitate its standard ‘£100,000 average lifetime graduate earnings premium’ rhetoric all it wants, but does this claim still apply in the modern world? The graduate salary premium doesn’t necessarily still exist and perhaps only really applies to the select group of Oxbridge graduates or medical students.

It is important to note that not all universities will be allowed to implement these higher fees. Universities will have to prove they provide high quality teaching if they are to be allowed to up their tuition fees. In the grand scheme of things, charging £750 more to attend university isn’t a major increase from the current fees and will seem minuscule in terms of the long-term monthly repayment plans. Let’s face it, most young people aren’t going to change their life plans and not go to university just because tuition fees have increased slightly. It’s the principle of having to pay more that most bothers students.

“The government is in danger of commercialising higher education even more”

My problem with this is that the government is in danger of commercialising higher education even more. British students in the modern day seem to think they are paying for their certificate at the end of their course and not paying for the actual education process and experience. All that these tuition fee rises will do is continue the mentality amongst students that they are automatically entitled to a degree because they are paying so much for it.

And as if tuition fee rises weren’t a big enough kick in the teeth, students will no longer have access to maintenance grants to financially aid them through the tough university years. These types of grants will now be replaced by loans that must be repaid in the same way as tuition fees. These cuts have been long in the making but people have only just realised it’s happening now. Parliament voted to scrap maintenance grants for poorer students a few months ago and it actually came into effect a week ago. This means that these cuts will affect all students from less affluent backgrounds for the new academic year. Currently, students from lower income families – earning less than £25,000 per year – receive a maintenance grant of £3,387 a year. By the very nature of a grant, it is free and doesn’t have to be paid back.

This is naturally a major disappointment for many people connected to higher education. With more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attending university than ever, the scrapping of these grants will almost certainly force some prospective students away from applying for university places. Are we in danger of damaging the progressiveness and diversity of our higher education institutions? A petition has already been launched online to bring maintenance grants back for the poorest students in the UK. Having said this, there was a petition to have a 2nd referendum on Britain’s EU membership that was signed by over 4 million people, but look how that’s going…

This is an extremely difficult debate as there are valid points to be made on both sides. The obvious stance to take is that this scrapping of maintenance grants will price students from low income households out of attending university. But technically speaking, under the new scheme, while at university students will have access to more money than before (under the loan system), and only students who go on to be high earners will actually pay their loans back.

“The Labour Party are too busy fighting amongst themselves to notice”

So what has happened to Mrs May’s ‘sharing prosperity’ slogan? The timing of all this is incredibly unfortunate for Theresa May, coming just a week after her famous speech pledging more social mobility and equality throughout the country. She should have been slammed by her enemies for this, however her opponents in the Labour Party are too busy fighting amongst themselves to notice.

Not a single mention of these cuts has been made by Mr Corbyn, who is too busy wandering around the country trying to find some legitimacy for his leadership amongst grass-roots Labour members. You would have thought this sort of story would have been right up his socialist street. Owen Smith isn’t much better either. He can speak all he wants about smashing Mrs May ‘back on her heels’, but he needs to win the leadership election first. It seems the fear of falling into obscurity is driving both Corbyn and Smith in this leadership contest. They should both be getting on with their jobs of standing up for their constituents, some of whom may be affected by these recent grant cuts.

It is too radical to suggest, as some have, that these grant cuts show the Tories are waging class war on poor students. But this is certainly a scary time to be a student, with an unpredictable graduate job market and unease in the wake of Brexit. The majority of students from middle class backgrounds are worried about taking on a lot debt from university, therefore how must poorer socio-economic students be feeling? All this makes you wonder what further handicaps are awaiting British students over the course of the current parliament.

Alex Moore

Image: U.S. Embassy London via Flickr

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