What on earth is Gillian Keegan talking about?

This morning, as part of the Westminster government’s “Education Week”, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan appeared on Times Radio - and was asked to respond to comments from Keir Starmer about student finance.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

He had said he would not have been able to afford to study law at the University of Leeds if the economy had been in a similar position in the early 1980s – and accused the government of “holding back” ambition and talent and “choking off the dreams” of a generation:

There wasn’t any spare money knocking around to fund me going to Leeds. I worked before I went and then got by on grants, as many young people do. I vividly remember carefully calculating rent, bills and food. Going to Leeds to study was a turning point for me; it will be a deep betrayal if one of the legacies of this Tory government is university, apprenticeships and skills becoming the preserve of the wealthy.

That ambitious and successful students are making decisions about their next steps based on costs and their financial means should shame the Conservatives. Tory economic failure choking off the dreams of the next generation is a deep betrayal of aspirational Britain. Talent and aspiration should drive young people – not the affordability of rent, or soaring food prices. I vividly remember the excitement of moving to Leeds to study law. It was a financial stretch then; if I were a student today, I wouldn’t be able to go.

He’s not actually been near maintenance thus far, and while there were no actual policy proposals attached to his remarks, it may well signal that we might get some soon.

Anyway, as I say Keegan appeared on Times Radio Breakfast this morning and was asked by presenter Rosie Wright to respond to the comments in the context of the government’s announcement on free schools. Here’s what she said:

Well, I mean, I don’t know what Keir said but effectively we have a student loan system. We have a maintenance loan system as well. So those systems are in place and they’ve actually enabled more and more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university. So since 2010, you’re now 86 per cent more likely to go to university from a disadvantaged background.

This is all fine – she might be referring to POLAR or maybe free school meals, but either way the participation rates are up substantially. It’s where she went next that was baffling:

What I’ve been working on as well is making sure that, if that is how you feel [ie Keir’s comments], and I have some sympathy with that because I probably would have had the same concerns because I wouldn’t possibly have the confidence to back myself with you know, an investment of 50,000 or so at that age, but we do have now more and more routes to the same destination.

So the degree apprenticeship, which I did very luckily, many years ago, we now have degree apprenticeships in 140 different careers so you want to be a nurse and medical doctor and accountant and a lawyer cybersecurity expert whatever it is pretty much any career you can think of, there is an alternative route into that career. So if you are wanting to get in and learn and get your your fees paid for, then that is what we’ve been working on building that route as well.

This will be the government’s obsession with growing demand for Degree Apprenticeships – when it appears to be supply that’s the problem:

The questioning then moved (back) onto affordability – Wright questioned the “ballpark” figure of £50k for a three year degree in terms of living costs, fees etc. Keegan said:

It depends on the place you go to I guess and your living costs. So it’s £9,250 which has been the same since 2017. But affordability of your rent and food… Yeah, I mean, we have these grants in place. They’ve gone up this year.

Grants? Grants? Oh, she means the “student premium funding” – which over the past few years we’ve come to label the “magic money twig”:

We’ve also got a hardship fund…

…by which she means we often erroneously refer to those “grants” as a hardship fund…

…which we’ve increased by 276 million this year.

There’s a lot of difference between the word “by” and “to”. She means “to” – the actual total was £277m in 2020 until her predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor’s predecessor Gavin Williamson cut the figure to £256m.

Since then it’s gone up a bit, taken on a myriad of new purposes (it was supposed to help universities with all the additional costs of supporting students at risk of non-continuation but has now rhetorically morphed into a Hardship Fund) and is now stretched much thinner per student, as we looked at here.

So if somebody is struggling, they come from a background where they are struggling to afford that, then the universities have bursaries they have funds to have hardship times and we’ve increased that by 276 million pounds this year.

There’s that tricky difference between “by” and “to” again.

Because we know there’s a lot of pressure, but many many young people, many more than than ever before, are going to university, so it is a route that, you know, is accessible and it’s accessible for everybody.


While I’m here, her universities minister Robert Halfon has been busy defending T-Level drop out:

There’s much to be said for the curiosity and subtlety here in understanding the reasons for and alternative outcomes from those who don’t complete T-Levels, as well as those who don’t complete Degree Apprenticeships – given the achievement rate is 52.6 per cent, and they have worse experience scores to boot, as a route they’d get TEF “requires improvement”.

It’s just weird that the same kind of curiosity and subtlety when he’s looking at “rip off” degrees and their drop-out rates.

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