When I took up the NUS presidency in 2017, my aim was to knock down barriers for working class students who wanted to get in and get on in further and higher education.
Student hardship is a massive barrier, and the one thing I wanted to see for higher education students was reinstating maintenance grants.
NUS launched its poverty commission in my first year, which aimed to bring together experts and evidence from across the sector and beyond to understand those barriers and what we could do about them. We wanted to convince the government to review student support, like the Scottish and Welsh governments already had – and it seems like the prime minister was listening, because she launched the Augar review before the poverty commission report was even published.
The review is an exciting opportunity to fix the problems in student support and reduce student hardship. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has changed the way student loans are treated in the national accounts and that means budgets might be tighter, but I think there are reasons for optimism too, in that student loans are no longer magic money which leads to distorted policy decisions.
What should Augar say?
I’m still adamant that maintenance grants need to return, so we support working class students and put an end to the obscene situation whereby they graduate with the highest student loan debts. The Diamond Review in Wales shows this can be done in a way that really ensures the poorest students are properly supported, and we know that the Augar has looked at the findings of Diamond in detail. On top of that, just about every voice in the sector, including UUK, the Russell Group and Million Plus argues they should return, so I remain hopeful.
We also need to provide better funding for those on part-time or distance learning courses, or otherwise support flexible learning – this should include targeted support like childcare funding for part-time students and travel grants for commuters. The decision to scrap NHS bursaries for nurses, midwives and other healthcare professions needs revisited as it has clearly failed those students and the health service.
There are lots of other changes we have suggested that would make a huge difference to students such as monthly student support payments monthly to help students budget or increasing the threshold for maximum support from £25,000 for the first time in over a decade. And all this is not even to start on adult learning – student support is inadequate in HE – but at least it exists. We need to radically improve the offer for those in FE and I think the Augar panel will recognise that too.
Keeping an eye on the detail
Of course, we won’t get everything we have asked for, and it’s possible changes might be made that are not in students’ interests. We will be especially wary of changes to student loan repayment terms and conditions as we don’t want that aspect of the system to become less progressive. Nor do we want the system as a whole to get a mere rebrand if it retains all of its flaws.
But even if we get do get some real improvements in the funding system, the major problem we’ve faced over many years is that every time grants or loans increase, students’ costs increase faster. The most recent NUS/Unipol Accommodation Costs Survey found that student rents in London increased by an average of 5.5% every year between 2011 and 2018, and 4.7% outside of the capital. Students were never so lucky, and in fact support rates were often frozen as austerity took hold.
The poverty commission received evidence of the extent to which some universities profit from their accommodation, with more than 20 HEIs making at least £1,000 profit per bedspace. Meanwhile, while the market in private halls is worth £50bn. Students are taking out huge debts that simply contribute to the profit margins for these providers, (who in many cases avoid paying their fair share of tax) and are fed up. While we do need to increase student support, we must break this cycle.
NUS and students’ unions have raised repeatedly the issue of accommodation costs with Philip Augar and his panel and although accommodation is not directly in the remit of the review I am very hopeful he will be able to suggest some reforms – not just because they benefit students, but because they will ultimately make the system less expensive for the Treasury too.
NUS published the poverty commission report just in time to submit to Augar’s call for evidence last spring. It set out a compelling case for change, supported by the piles of other evidence NUS and students’ unions gathered and submitted. Philip Augar has told me he’s listened carefully to us.
Some of those barriers to getting in and getting on might just be about to get knocked down.