The first Tory majority government Britain has seen in over 15 years has been in office for almost six months. It’s a Tory government which is proposing to axe the student maintenance grants system – a system aimed at improving social mobility by providing university hopefuls from low income backgrounds vital financial support to help with the cost of studying. The scale of this attack is only just beginning to sink in among the student demographic. In just over a week, on the 4th of November, a big student demonstration is to be held in London against this planned cut.
Most are aware of what maintenance grants aim to do. The goal of giving more money to low income families and students to help cover the costs associated with university such as course materials, books, housing, food and other bills and to stop poorer students from being deterred from attending university for financial reasons. The UK spends around £3.5 billion per year on maintenance grants (out of a budget, as of July 2015, of £742 billion). Of course the Tories claim that they’ve been scrapped, in the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne because they are “unaffordable”. In reality there is enough money – it is just a question of priorities. Do we spend money on education and public services or on war and nuclear weapons for example?
The scrapping of maintenance grants is making education even more inaccessible to poorer students. The issue of course is that for many students this is just the latest in a long line of attacks: the tripling of tuition fees for almost every student in the country, the cutbacks in not only courses but also staff at universities, the soaring price of rent for most students, as well as a lack of secure and decently paid work. When we see it in this context, the scrapping of maintenance grants looks more like an extension of the Tory Party’s ideologically driven attack on the social security system of the United Kingdom, rather than some sort of economic necessity.
The Tories, above all else, are known for their approach to economics and standards of living – a commonly held phrase being ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’. The issue then, at the moment, is the manner in which the Tory party have attempted to commoditize the United Kingdom system and infrastructure of higher education, whereby most students are now aware that their university course is to be thought of more of a product that they are investing in to provide to secure higher future earnings, than a more human and natural approach to learning and education, in the spheres of higher education involving the complexities of academia and research.
The Tories are presenting a narrative to the public that university students, universities and higher education is somehow similar to say, someone shopping in a supermarket or on a high street, or purchasing a flight to another country. This encourages one to start to calculate and analyse university education as though it were some sort of product. So, from this Tory, neo-liberal perspective it becomes in a sense justifiable to be taking away the last line of support for the poorest students, if you look at the entire higher education system as a bunch of early-twenty somethings trying to get access to a product, which they should then have to pay for.
The problem, of course, is that higher education is not actually a market, and to depict universities and university students as akin to consumers and suppliers is to turn reality on its head: the truth is that education is a social good that benefits the whole of society and we should collectively invest in education by making it free at all levels and see this as an investment in the future of our society. Free education is, contrary to what the Tories’ claim, a very sensible economic choice and something which other western countries, notable Germany and the Scandinavian countries, have prioritised.
Ultimately, the scrapping of maintenance grants needs to be seen as as part of the Tories wider assault on public services.
As they continue to refuse to generate tax revenue by raising taxes on the incomes of the upper class and upper middle class, on large to massive firms, and instead try to solve the budget deficit by dismantling as much of the social security system as possible, which essentially just amounts to transferring and concentrating wealth, the left in Britain has been reignited by the election to Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, the largest and historical left wing party of Britain. What is needed is for the student movement to combine the various groups within it into a united movement and together engage in action.
Education is not a privilege – it is a right, not a commodity, and one of the fundamental institutions of human society. It is not something to be bought and sold. Let’s fight for free education by protesting in our thousands on Wednesday 4 November.