A student loan system has been proposed as a part of the chancellor’s Autumn statement promising up to £10,000 funding towards postgraduate degrees but is it radical enough to truly bridge the education gap caused by the class divide?
The introduction of university fees in 1998 was met with strong criticism and triggered mass panic amongst students fearing it would substantially increase the class divide, rendering higher education predominantly for the higher classes. The later increase of fees in 2010 allowing universities to charge up to £9,000 per year supported this argument. The government’s response to this was the simultaneous introduction of Student Finance. For most students the mere mention of it invokes frustration; the meticulous details required, dreaded complications, and the antagonising fact that we are basically applying for debt.
Similar to any dystopian society you read about in a book, we are continuously told to focus on the benefits of what Student Finance has to offer – ‘allowing’ those unable to fund their own tuition fees to attend university thus bettering themselves in terms of not only employability, but also intellectually and philosophically. The government readily present it as a useful tool assisting those unable to afford such inflated fees however, they are reluctant to state that truthfully Student Finance is a heavily relied upon system. As according to statistics supplied by the Social and General Statistics sector of government, 85% of students are funded through university under Student Finance costing on average around £10 billion per annum, which is set to steadily increase over the next few years. Ultimately, no one can really afford university. It is not a last resort to those who are worse off than others, but a necessity in order to progress into university study.
Although this has provided a greater opportunity for the working classes with an average low income background to be educated to a degree level, it is a mistake for the government to portray it as a way to “equalise” the classes. It has certainly enabled more people of different backgrounds to achieve a degree but the class divide is far from demolished as a result of an increase in those wishing to pursue postgraduate study. Currently no funding is offered for postgraduate opportunities such as a Masters or a PhD and therefore, the class divide in terms of education as merely shifted from undergraduate to postgraduate study. Although the fees of postgraduate substantially differ from the average £27,000 an undergraduate degree costs, as acknowledged by George Osborne, for most students it is still an unaffordable prospect and “deters bright students from poorer backgrounds”.
The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has proposed a solution to this. From 2016 the government will be offering a student loan scheme worth up to £10,000 to help fund postgraduate master’s programmes. Although this does not cover the cost of some MAs, particularly in London with the average LLM costing around £13,000 – it is a step in the right direction to bridge the education gap and class divide. It is estimated that this scheme will benefit over 40,000 students and according to Megan Dunn, the vice president of the National Union of Students, will remove the financial problems currently arising with “many postgraduates currently funding their study through potentially disastrous measures such as credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans”.
Despite the isolation of mature students through capping the age at 30 of those eligible for the loans, this is a beneficial progression in a society where the class divide is ever more visible. Education is invaluable and the proposal has been met with much support across the UK’s universities as it encourages more people to pursue study beyond their degree level.
However, some have argued such as UCU leader Sally Hunt, that although it is beneficial to recognise the value of what postgraduate study has to offer, “encouraging people to accrue more debt is not the best way to attract the best and brightest into further study”. Instead, more radical ideas should be considered “such as restoring proper grants or writing off part of a student’s undergraduate debt when they complete a postgraduate course”, an appealing proposition to all undergrads with a £27,000 debt looming.
Don Nutbeam, vice chancellor of Southampton University has subsequently made a comment on the government funded scheme stating that “for many professions, a postgraduate degree is essential. Without affordable access to postgraduate education, many professions were simply out of reach of those who could not afford to pay”. Despite the frustration felt by mature students over 30 who fall outside the eligibility, as Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute correctly stipulated, “it will open up postgrad study to more people” which can only be a positive thing.
Further details are due speculating the repayment policies as well as other fine details regarding the process and its accessibility, but with any luck it will be after a much needed reform of the Student Finance online system.