It took just 90 minutes for 18 MPs to axe maintenance grants for more than half a million of England’s poorest students “in a committee most people have never heard of.”
Labour MP for Ilford North, Wes Streeting, was one of several politicians present at the small debate - chaired by Tory MP Andrew Percy - on Thursday to urge ministers to keep the grants which were then ‘officially’ scrapped following a vote which saw a result of ten Ayes and eight Noes.
Addressing the committee prior to the vote, Mr Streeting said: “Only 18 members can vote in the committee, yet this issue will affect students in every constituency across the country. It is, therefore, even more surprising we find ourselves here on a committee most of our constituents have never heard of, away from the eyes of the public.”
Highlighting how the debate should have been taking place on the floor of the House of Commons, Mr Streeting appealed to the Conservative members of the committee to “think very carefully” about how seriously they take their role as “scrutineers of the Government and as effective legislators.” He added: “It is not the job of Members of Parliament to come to this place and simply allow the Government of the day - whatever our respective political colours - to railroad such dramatic changes in policy.
Watch the moment the committee voted to abolish the grants:
“It is our job to scrutinise, to hold the Government to account and to ensure we remember that, whatever our political affiliations, we are sent to this place by our constituents to champion their interests.”
Mr Streeting then asked the committee: “How can any member look themselves in the mirror this evening and say this issue has been properly considered?”
Addressing the Minister for Universities Jo Johnson- and describing how the Government’s grant-to-loan change would not help students “at all” - Labour MP for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, said Mr Johnson would “no doubt say students will have a little more money in their pockets as a result of the change.” However, she added: “As with all good cons, that is partly true, but it is a little like loan sharks or payday loans. They will get a bit up front, but they will be paying an awful lot more in the end. We again see a situation in which those who can least afford to pay are being asked to pay more than their wealthier counterparts.”
She continued: “Cynics might say this is a PR stunt because, as grants count towards current borrowing, the Government can remove the figure from their books by turning grants into loans so that it looks like they are borrowing less. One might call it ‘creative accounting’. The Institute for Fiscal Studies states that ‘the national accounts...will fall by...£2 billion per year’. But it adds that, in ‘the long run, savings will be much less’.
“This is another betrayal of parents and young people in Britain.”
Mr Johnson, though, defended the Conservatives’ decision to go ahead and turn the grant into a loan. He told the committee: “Switching support for living costs from grants to loans allows us to increase the upfront support provided to students from the lowest income backgrounds. We have set out a clear plan for the future to ensure higher education finances are sustainable and that more people can benefit from higher education.
“The proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education is up from 13.6 per cent in 2009 to 18.5 per cent in 2015. That represents the highest proportion of students from those backgrounds entering higher education ever, and it is an achievement that we can all be proud of.”
Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden, who is also Labour’s shadow minister for higher education, closed the debate just minutes before the voting took place. Describing how he was a tutor for the Open University for 20 years, he said he knew the experience of many of the students he taught was that they had been “put off higher education” at an earlier age by the costs.
He concluded: “Such things do not alter just because we are in the digital world of the 21st century. I appeal to the Minister to think again, to consider specifically the issues brought today and - for goodness’ sake - if he really thinks he has a good argument, to put it on the floor of the House.”
The National Union of Students (NUS) described how the Government succeeded in passing their motion to scrap maintenance grants “in a very sneaky, very unfair way,” and added: “But it’s not the first time this has happened. We can keep fighting for policy to be reversed.”
NUS president Megan Dunn thanked Mr Marsden for his support after the debate, and added: “The fight continues.”
Visit UKParliament to watch the debate in full
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies