Budget 2015: Osborne’s master class in pricing the poor out of university education

Winning a place at university should be decided by a student’s work, not by what they can afford

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The Independent Online

Imagine you’re a bright 17-year-old, with a wheelbarrow full of A grades, thinking about going to university.

Which degree course would you apply for? The best course at a world-class university or a mediocre one at a middling former polytechnic close to your home?

The answer is obvious to most of us, but what if your grades weren’t the only thing you had to take into account when you made that vital decision? What if the key determinant of where you went to university wasn’t your own ability to learn, but your parents’ ability to earn?

That is now precisely the predicament many young people will find themselves in thanks to the Chancellor’s controversial decision to scrap university maintenance grants. By replacing grants for lower income students in England and Wales from September 2016 with loans of up to £8,200 a year – on top of £9,000-a-year tuition fees – Mr Osborne has swept away decades of work to improve the life chances of youngsters from poor homes.

Given that this Government claims to champion opportunity, social mobility and meritocracy for all, the decision to abolish a grant that supports all three of those aims is not just bizarre, it’s morally wrong.

The payments, worth up to £3,387 a year, are critical for the half a million undergraduates who currently receive them to help fund their living costs through three or four years of study. From next year, without those grants, some students will only be able to afford to go to a university in a cheap town with low rents – which certainly rules out London, Oxford and Cambridge – or somewhere close enough so they can live at home while they study.

Or they will be forced to take on the new maintenance loans to pay their bills, and face leaving university with up to £51,600 of debt around their necks. So under the Chancellor’s misguided plans, the poorer the home that a student comes from, the more debt he wants them to be willing to take on to have a chance to improve their lives.

Leave aside the fact that half of those students will never earn enough to pay back their loans in full, £51,600 is an unfeasibly large amount of money for any teenager to take out as a loan. But it is a sum of Lottery win proportions to youngsters from homes where they have watched their parents eke out their meagre incomes to survive from week to week.

Getting a university education shouldn’t be like buying a car, where money talks, so the rich get to buy a brand new shiny Ferrari and the poorest have to make do with an old banger than can barely make it to the end of the road.

Winning a place at a top university should be decided solely by a student’s hard work and ability, not by what they can afford or how much debt they are willing to take on.

The Chancellor justified scrapping the grants in his Budget speech, saying they are “unaffordable” and claiming there is “a basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them”. Except there’s absolutely nothing unfair about helping children from poor homes to get a good education. That’s the very opposite of “unfairness”.

And it is abject nonsense to argue that people on low incomes resent paying taxes to help fund people to go to university. After all, it’s not just graduates who individually benefit from their degrees. The whole country gains from their expertise, their higher earnings and the extra taxes they may end up paying – and, with any luck, one of them might even cure cancer.

Maintenance grants aren’t a hand-out, they’re an investment in bright young people from the poorest homes to get the qualifications they need to make a better life for themselves. And that’s something any Government should be proud to spend taxpayers’ money on.

If George Osborne wants to end “unfairness” then he shouldn’t scrap a grant that enables every young person to have the same opportunity to go to a top university - whether they grew up on a country estate or a council estate.