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Future Funding: A Blow For UK Students? Maintenance Grants Converted to Loans from the 16/17 Academic Year

14 Jul

The British government have recently released the first financial budget since the conservative party majority win in the general election in May 2015.  There is currently much debate on the nature of the reforms that George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has proposed (including the Living Wage replacing the Minimum Wage for people over 25), and whether the budget dis-proportionally targets the middle and lower-income earners (via scrapping working tax credits, removing housing benefit for under 21’s, etc.).  Regardless of the merits and negatives of the budget as a whole, there was one piece of information that is pertinent to the readers of this blog.

That is the proposal to turn maintenance grants (which currently do not have to be paid back unlike the maintenance loans, of up to £3,387 per academic year for lower-income students whose family household income is below £25,000 per annum) into loans from September 2016 (or the 16/17 academic year) for English and Welsh students.  These loans would have to be paid back by the student after they have started earning above a certain income (£21,000 per annum).  Osborne has also stated that the available loaned finance available for students in total will thus be increased up to a total £8,200 per academic year (there is a higher allowance in place for London), dependent on the financial status and background of the student.  This is an overall general increase of £766 per year, the highest that it has been.  Further to this is the possibility and suggestion of the uncapping of the £9000-a-year maximum of student tuition fees that universities in England and Wales can currently charge from the 17/18 academic year for the institutions which offer high-quality teaching, linking it instead with inflation.  There is currently no definition of high-quality teaching institutions and the rise in fees will likely be mentioned in further budgets in the remaining terms of this government.

It should be mentioned here that, for English and Welsh students, university is still free at the point of entry (Scotland has a different system due to greater independence).  Still, I cannot help but think that the loans may discourage students from poorer economic backgrounds in pursuing a degree. I also worry that this could affect different non-finally related sectors of the population more disparately than others in the access to education, when it is well-known that access to education offers the means to improve the circumstances of your life.

Last year I highlighted the changing nature of Disabled Students Allowance (DSA) from the 15/16 academic year for new students starting from that year.  DSA helps to level the playing field for students with disabilities in accessing tertiary education by equipping the students with non-medical help, transport costs, technological equipment and IT training, once they have been assessed on how their disability, or disabilities, affect them in an academic environment to the detriment of their studies.

It is well acknowledged that adult disabled individuals in the United Kingdom tend to be financially poorer than the norm.  The Papworth Trust, a charity focused on providing help for the disabled and elderly, cited the fact that, in a wide-ranging study of disability in the United Kingdom reported in 2014, the employment rate among disabled adults in March 2013 was 49% (4.1 million) compared to the national average of 81.8% of non-disabled people (source).  The two main barriers to work were seen as access to job opportunities (43%) and difficultly with transport (29%), whilst disabled adults are three times likely to have no formal qualifications as non-disabled individuals at 30% and 11% respectively in the reports study cohort.  In an Office for National Statistics report on adult health in Great Britain in 2013, more than 1 in 3 individuals responded positively to having a long-term disability or illness which affected their life (source).

Of course, this all may appear a minor financial quibble in the United Kingdom compared to the ongoing massive financial and business crisis in Greece (with the ‘troika’ of the EU, ECB and the IMF imposing strict financial settlements and austerity measures) and the possible first signs of trouble, or at least signs of slowing down, in the Chinese economy.

However, I’d argue that, as a potential barrier in accessing higher education, and hence skills, this poses a problem in the ability for students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities having to justify their course choices and, more generally, the financial ability to pay the loan back once the course has been completed.  Furthermore, there is the potential for the cost to fall back on the UK taxpayers if these loans are not repaid by the student.  There are no easy answers to the funding of higher education, especially as more students gain entry than ever before.  Universities are dynamic places though, both in as centers of employment and of research and teaching – to undervalue them would be to do great discredit to their economic and educational value.  There is a crushing amount of debt to face already as a new university student in the UK, however it is realised that the student loans system is quite unlike high street bank loans, in the fact that the interest rate is much lower and the individual is given a much longer time back in which to pay back the loan, and only after a certain amount of annual income has been reached.  Still, I would, as a new student today, think twice regarding whether a course was necessarily worth the debt (though I have no doubts the value and real wealth of the British university system, in both the quality of the research and the experience itself of being a student).

It is this last point that makes me think of archaeology in all of this.  Most practicing archaeologists in the UK today are highly educated, often needing or pursuing post-graduate courses to specialise within the sector.  It is well recognised that, at the moment and historically, archaeology is a poorly paid employment sector and, especially if you are primarily a field archaeologist, that this employment can be precarious in nature.  With recent changes in planning and construction law, the ability of archaeological companies to safeguard both the work and the quality of the archaeology uncovered is also in real danger.  We gain must ask ourselves who is archaeology for and who is involved?  What are the barriers to everyone accessing archaeology and how can we overcome these barriers as a sector?

I’ve got confidence that the archaeological market will adapt to the challenges posed, that students will still attend university, and that loans will, in one form or another be paid back as possible.  It is clear though that barriers to accessing education at a higher level in the UK are rising.  We should be wary of this, and we should be wary of the longer term implications of it, especially when we come to view our past.

Further Information

  • A full breakdown of the financial entitlements available to students who study in the United Kingdom is available here via the government website.  The page includes all the information available for the pricing of the maintenance loans, maintenance grants and the terms and conditions of the financial agreements themselves.  The website for the Office for National Statistics, which houses many open access reports, documents various national statistics, including the health and disability status of the population of the United Kingdom and the individual countries within it.
  • The previous post detailing the available human osteology taught masters courses in the United Kingdom (or courses where modules in human osteology and anatomy are included), along with the guidelines on course prices for domestic and international students, can be found here.  A supplementary post on the questions to remember to ask when thinking about studying human osteology, or bioarchaeology, at the masters level can be found here.