When Chancellor George Osborne stood in the House of Commons and presented his budget last July, he announced changes to maintenance grants. From the 2016-17 academic year, the grants would become loans.
The loans, with a maximum value of £8,200, would need to be paid back when graduates earned more than £21,000 a year.
Osborne said the grants had become unaffordable, according to a report from the BBC. He added that there had been a “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them.”
Osborne added that these reforms would ensure Britain would continue to have the best universities in the world, the report added.
Osborne was criticised for the move, including by the National Union of Students, which set up a campaign to lobby MPs about the cuts, especially through Twitter, using the hashtag #cutthecosts.
— Josie Linsel (@UCLanSU_Pres) September 23, 2015
— Tom Phipps (@thomas_phipps) October 9, 2015
— Angela (@angalexander84) September 24, 2015
— Ruth Titmuss (@UPSUpresident) September 24, 2015
Yet, on 23 September, lawyers for the NUS wrote to Business Secretary Sajid Javid, taking legal action against the government on the policy. In its letter to Javid, lawyers for the NUS said there was not a fair assessment of the impact of cutting the grants, and equality implications of the policy should be considered.
NUS president Megan Dunn, then, on 7 October, said the union took the matter to the High Court.
“We have no choice but to push forward on calling for a judicial review to ensure the most vulnerable students are not priced out of higher education, because if the plans go ahead, access to higher education will be irrevocably compromised,” Dunn wrote in a blog post on the NUS web site. “The abolition of maintenance grants, along with other welfare cuts, will mean students from low socio-economic backgrounds will be hit the hardest. The government needs to sit up and start listening to what the students of this country are telling them – that this will damage our education system and the potential of future generations.”
A spokesperson for the NUS said Dunn was not available for an interview with Kettle to discuss the legal action. A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, reached by telephone, said they could not comment on the matter as it was being heard in the courts.
As the Court considers the case, what implications could this have for students? Nona Buckley-Irvine, the general secretary of the London School of Economics Student Union, said the action by the NUS was bold, and the government was sending a message of a total lack of compassion with these grants.
“We are facing a very authoritarian government,” Buckley-Irvine said in a telephone interview. “The NUS is using measures to stop a bill passing. They chose it as a practical step to effect government policy.”
Buckley-Irvine said student unions need to create awareness and lobby institutions to pressure the government on the grants, something she is looking to continue at LSE.
“I need to be vocal,” Buckley-Irvine said. “There isn’t a lot of scope of involvement but what is important is the pressure from the institutions.”
Buckley-Irvine said the student body can be engaged, but noted difficulties at LSE considering few students received the maintenance grant.
“The student body is engaged, but you feel like the government won’t listen despite how far you go,” Buckley-Irvine said. “The real challenge is getting people to feel empowered. If people didn’t say anything, that’s just consenting to what is going on. [You need to] show dissent and keep ideas alive.”
The Court’s decision may be significant for the student population in the UK, and Buckley-Irvine says the power is in the government’s hands to make the right decision, and they have had the message on how people feel about the grants.
“The government has had the message,” Buckley-Irvine said. “When you have an ideological agenda, that is another matter. The public is very clear on the message.”
What do you think? Will the legal action change policy? Have your say in the comments section below.