Students march against cash cuts

Education grants: Demonstration against 'final straw' reduction as claims of hardship on campus intensify
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The Independent Online

Ten thousand students marched through London yesterday to demonstrate against Government plans to cut student grants by a further 10 per cent next year.

The National Union of Students, which organised the demonstration, said students were already suffering from financial hardship as a result of a 10 per cent cut in grants this year. And "the final straw," according to a spokesman, was the Government's declared intention to privatise student loans.

The NUS President, Jim Murphy, claims student hardship is reaching intolerable levels. "Recent research by the NUS found that one in three students missed meals because of hardship, and university medical centres are now acknowledging real problems with stress-related illnesses among students."

Student loans were introduced five years ago at the same time as the student grant, which went towards meeting living costs, was frozen in value. In the 1993 Budget, the Government announced its intention of accelerating the switch from grants to loans by cutting the value of the student grant by up to ten per cent a year for three years and increasing the amount available from student loans by an equivalent amount.

The Department for Education said yesterday that in the current academic year, grants were cut by between 5.3 per cent and 8.6 per cent, depending on individual circumstances. The grant is currently pounds 1,885 a year; pounds 2,340 in London.

Financial stress among students is being cited by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals as a possible reason for increasing student drop-out rates. According to the most recent figures available, 40,000 students dropped out in 1992- 93 - 25 per cent up on the previous year.

The stress factor did seem to be a major inspiration for the demonstrators. According to Rhinana, a 19-year-old undergraduate from Sheffield, she was not marching on her own behalf, but for her friends. She said the stress of having a family, as many mature students did, combined with working late nights in pubs to find the money to pay essential living costs, inflicted such stress that those students often had to drop out.

A woman student from Doncaster university, who did not wish to be named, said that IT classes there had dropped to only five from about 20 because of course costs. In Doncaster students were particularly aggrieved by recent cuts in transport allowance. Doncaster's three campuses, she said, were at different ends of the city and most students used the bus, which cost them pounds 1 to move from site to site.

The purchase of textbooks, according to Jo, 19, from Leicester, and Marie, 20, from Durham, both studying combined science, was a major expense that had been overlooked. Jo said she had to buy four books a term at a cost of pounds 20 each. Her total annual grant is pounds 1,000. Both said they had to work during the holidays, which did not interfere with their studies too much at present, but they were worried about what would happen when it came to their finals. Three of Jo's friends dropped out last year because they could no longer afford it.

Marie said that after her college bills had been paid she had been left with pounds 50 to live on. She does not get a grant, so her parents have to make up the rest, which is a strain on them.

Steve Okelo, 30, an overseas student from Kenya, studying at Sunderland, was marching because he said his overseas grant fell short of his living requirements by pounds 30 a week. This, he said, was partly to do with exchange rates and banking arrangements in his own country that the Government had not taken into account.

There were signs, perhaps that not all of the protesters were as hard- up as they claimed. When one of them thought no-one was looking, he whipped out his mobile phone.