Government plans to make it harder for people to go to university will only entrench inequality.

Government plans to make it harder for people to go to university and to force students to pay more of their loans back will only entrench inequality.

Students don’t have the ear of the government. We’ve known this for many years. It was the case before I became Vice-President for Higher Education almost two years ago, and I’m sure it’ll be the case after I leave this position. But the Tories’ inability to acknowledge our basic concerns has never stopped shocking me. 

A couple of months ago, the Tories announced plans to make it harder for students to go to university and to force us to pay more of our student loans back if they do go. Since then, research has come out exposing just how brutal these changes will be. It’s dawned on me that when it comes to students, there’s one word which is central to this government’s approach. Inequality. 

With the consultation on these plans closing today (6 May), it’s worth recapping what the Tories are proposing. They want to stop people from getting a student loan if they don’t get C grades (now grade 4s) in both Maths and English at GCSE, as well as making graduates begin repaying their loan when earning £25,000 per year (rather than £27,295 per year currently) and increase how long they repay from 30 to 40 years. This won’t be a minor change for young people; the recent Spring Statement confirmed that this will land students and graduates with a £35 billion tab over the next five years. 

And it won’t be the most privileged who get lumped with the bill – instead, it’ll be the poorest and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those who are already faced with choosing between heating and eating, or reliant on Klarna loans and using food banks. 

The Institute for Fiscal Studies research shows that these reforms will mean those on lower and middling incomes – who are disproportionately from working-class backgrounds and people from ethnic minority groups – will pay back more, while the highest earners will be better off under the new system. Lower and average earners will be trapped in a system where they’ll be paying more back and for longer. Investment platform AJ Bell ran the figures and reported that by the time they’re into their 60s, new graduates will have paid back £54,000 more over their lives. And with interest rates already rocketing (12 per cent this September), unless you’re on a massive salary, it’ll be impossible to clear your debt balance. 

As well as treating students as cash cows, the government’s planned changes are also an ideological attack on opportunity. Their minimum eligibility requirements are calculated cruelness; they’re designed to keep marginalised groups down. Students who are from working-class communities, or Black and brown, are less likely to achieve passes in English and Maths GCSEs; the IFS’s research shows 23 per cent undergraduates who were on free school meals and 23 per cent of Black and brown undergraduates wouldn’t have been able to attend university with this requirement. Conversely, just five per cent of undergraduates who’d attended private schools and seven per cent of white undergrads would’ve been affected. Inequality is well and truly baked into this government’s approach. The long-term impact of this on local communities and economies will be devastating, but for whatever reason, this government is bent on producing a cycle where inequality is entrenched for generation upon generation. 

On top of this, students who miss their grades but still want to study will be vulnerable to an unregulated market for high-interest loans. And of course, those who are wealthy enough to self-fund will be exempt from this policy. When you put these measures up against the backdrop of a government failing to reintroduce maintenance grants, an additional £3,000 added to student debt this Autumn, and a cost of living crisis which is forcing one in ten students into foodbanks, it’s just appalling.  

Students came together earlier this week to protest these changes outside the Department for Education building in Sheffield on Tuesday. Truth be told, we’d rather not be tinkering with this system which was never built with students in mind. It would be much better if education put people ahead of profits and didn’t solely view students as cash cows. But students are at a breaking point, and we owe it to the millions who’ll be affected by these cruel changes to do everything we can to oppose them. We’ll continue to do this, alongside campaigning in favour of what could be – a transformative education system, which is funded, accessible and lifelong.  

Hillary Gyebi-Ababio is UK Vice President of the National Union of Students. Follow her on Twitter.

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