Our Development Intern, Saskia Wootton-Cane, explores why the government should reinstate maintenance grants.  

The publication of the Augar review in 2019 promised a revolution for the post-18 education system in England. Why, then, are some of the key measures to support low-income and disadvantaged students glaringly missing from the government’s response?

As student numbers continue to rise, financing the higher education sector has become as much an ideological battlefield as a financial one. The hike in tuition fees, coupled with the abolishment of maintenance and student support grants in 2016, was presented as a rational solution to counter unsustainable pressure on the Treasury. But it also raised fears that increased costs would act as a barrier to deter low-income young people from pursuing higher education.

Though on the surface these fears appear not to have materialised – student numbers, including those of disadvantaged students, have continued to rise – there remains a substantial access gap to higher education between disadvantaged students and their better-off peers. Furthermore, high levels of student debt among the new generation of graduates began to pose a political issue, particularly with the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn promising to abolish tuition fees. The Augar Review was commissioned by Theresa May in 2018 and was tasked with scrutinising and assessing the post-18 education system in England, with student finance a key point of focus. When it was published the following year, the review highlighted debt aversity as a major factor in discouraging lower-income students from entering higher education and recommended the reinstatement of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 for eligible students, alongside a recommendation to cut tuition fees by £1,750.

It is worth acknowledging that debt aversity functions as both a psychological and very material barrier for low-income students. It is not a purely speculative fear: lower-income students (in households with the lowest 40% of earnings than those in the highest 20%. Such students are the most likely to be saddled with higher debt (from needing to borrow more to cover maintenance costs), and, thanks to rising interest rates, more likely to struggle to make progress on paying it back. But it also places psychological barriers on students, who may feel constrained when making choices such as where and what to study.  Research from the Sutton Trust in 2019 found that two-fifths (40%) of young people who are likely to go to university or who aren’t sure either way yet were worried about the cost of higher education. These worries about finance are more pronounced for young people from the least affluent families (50% compared with 32% in ‘high affluence’ households). The panel’s recommendation was therefore a much needed recognition of the disproportionate weight of the maintenance system on low-income students.

Now, nearly three years after the Augar Review’s publication, the government’s response outlines its view for a more sustainable student finance system, prioritising taxpayer value and graduate outcomes. The government’s proposals target “low-value” courses and institutions through student number controls, and minimum eligibility requirements are proposed as a barrier to accessing student finance- though not university access as a whole. Amongst these ambitious, and controversial, reforms, one recommendation was noticeably absent- the restoration of maintenance grants.

The silence over the restoration of maintenance grants is not the only reform- or lack thereof-in the government’s response that impacts disadvantaged students. Not only are these students subject to the highest amounts of debt, but they are also most likely to attend the universities targeted by government number controls, and most likely to not achieve GCSEs above grade 4 in Maths and English or two Es at A Level, where the proposed entry requirements are set. In fact, research by the IFS shows that in the 2011 and 2012 student cohorts almost one in four students eligible for free school meals (FSM) would have been excluded from accessing university had a minimum GCSE English and maths requirement been in place. This is in comparison to just 5% of private school students, and as the entry requirements apply to accessing student finance rather than university itself, it might be fairly assumed that at least a small proportion of that 5% would be able to traverse the financial barrier by simply financing themselves through parental funding. By the DfE’s own admission, little progress has been made in narrowing the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM students, suggesting these statistics are still relevant for pre-pandemic cohorts.

The government response to Augar has been a missed opportunity to lower barriers to participation in HE for lower-income students. But they are also rooted in a wider ideology around the purpose of education and levels of government spending. By contrast, reinstating means-tested maintenance grants is a policy with a modest call on public funds and a comparatively large payoff, substantially blunting the material and psychological barriers to accessing higher education and levelling the playing field for low-income students right from the beginning of their career. If we cannot avoid graduates taking on debt to finance their higher education, we should at least ensure that that debt falls proportionately and fairly.

The Augar Review itself acknowledges that cost of living, particularly accommodation costs, are a high-priority concern for many students. Three years on and we have not only come through a pandemic which has greatly worsened the pre-existing inequalities in education and social mobility, but we are also facing a cost-of-living crisis not seen in a generation. If debt-aversity was a key barrier for students three years ago, we are only seeing the burden upon students who do choose to enter higher education become heavier and harder to shift.

If we are to be serious about reshaping our higher education to make it fit for purpose for students from all backgrounds, there are a great number of ambitious reforms we could embark on. Reinstating maintenance grants is, by contrast, both morally and practically straightforward. As the Trust declared in its assessment of student finance back in 2017, “there is a straightforward answer to a system which is predicated on imposing vast amounts of debt which will never be paid back by most, and that is to impose lower debt in the first place”.

If now, in the aftermath of Covid and the midst of rising inflation and energy costs, is not the time to reduce the unfair burden on the poorest students – when is?

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