Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

In the Here and Now, Maintenance Matters More Than Tuition Fees

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

In the Here and Now, Maintenance Matters More Than Tuition Fees

Article excerpt

Support for living costs is vital to participation, but grants that help provide it are under threat, say Nick Hillman and Nicholas Robinson

The red-hot higher education issue of recent years has been tuition fees - hence Labour's effort to woo those going to the polls today with a pledge to reduce them.

Yet fees do not have to be repaid until after graduation, thanks to tuition fee loans. For disadvantaged students, cash-in-hand maintenance support is more important than the level of fees. Without decent support to help with living costs, students from less well-off backgrounds must work long hours, which disrupts their study, or, even worse, they may decide not to enter higher education at all.

The National Union of Students has made that point loudly and clearly in recent months. It is a welcome change of heart and a campaign that will no doubt be continued by Megan Dunn, the union's newly elected president. Past NUS leaders have been fair-weather friends of maintenance support. They acquiesced (to put it generously) in Tony Blair's abolition of maintenance grants in 1998. More recently, they urged the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to hit maintenance rather than fees back in 2010. On the day that MPs voted for £9,000 fees, The Daily Telegraph ran a story with the headline "National Union of Students secretly urged Government to make deep cuts in student grants".

However welcome and rational the NUS' current stance is, it may still prove a sticky wicket. Compared with other countries, England has rather generous maintenance support - just look at Australia, whose student finance system is generally considered to be the most similar to England's.

Australia's maintenance system is built around Youth Allowance, a means-tested, non-repayable grant that partly resembles the UK's Jobseeker's Allowance. In Australia, 180,000 students, less than a fifth of the 1 million home students, receive about £150 a fortnight, or £3,800 a year. Anyone receiving the Youth Allowance also gets a Student Start-Up Scholarship worth about £1,000 a year, bringing the total annual grant to nearly £5,000.

Even accounting for Australia's higher cost of living, that sum is generous compared with the full grant in England - £3,387 a year (and much more generous than Scotland's full grant of £1,750). But an English student typically has more cash in hand than an Australian once student loans are factored in. For example, an English undergraduate from a family on £25,000 a year who studies away from home (outside London) can borrow £3,862 on top of the maintenance grant. …

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