Students from across the UK have risen up against Parliament’s recent decision to replace maintenance grants with loans. In a debate in the House of Commons last Tuesday, the Labour party called upon the government to abandon its plan to scrap the maintenance grant for the poorest students in England.
More than five hundred demonstrators gathered outside parliament during the debate, blocking Westminster Bridge for more than an hour and a half. Despite these protests, MPs voted down Labour’s opposition motion to reverse the government’s decision in a narrow vote of 292 for and 306 against.
The protest was organized by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC), a coalition of student and education worker activists which was founded at the University College London. Speaking to The Student, a spokesperson for the NCAFC said that the replacement of grants with loans was a “direct attack on students from low-income families”.
They continued: “This is an unacceptable and socially regressive policy that intends to place the burden of the costs of education on those who are already marginalised by our economic system.”
The policy was unveiled by the Conservative Chancellor George Osborne in his budget summary, published in July, 2015. It will affect half a million of the UK’s poorest students who rely on the means-tested grant to pay for university life.
During Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons the day after the maintenance grants debate, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron maintained that the government was “uncapping aspiration” for Britain’s young people after being challenged by the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, on the controversial decision.
“Our policies are actually going to put more money in the hands of students, which is why we’re doing it.” The Prime Minister added.
The government’s plan, which will come into effect in the 2016/17 academic year, means that students from low-income families will be able to receive a higher loan of £8,200 which they will have to pay back once they starting earning over £21,000 a year.
However, protesters have insisted that the new policy will leave students from low-income backgrounds with more debt once they graduate than their more affluent peers. Jordan Oloman, a second year student at the University of Newcastle, described his maintenance grant as a “godsend”, telling The Student: “I think if I was in the position of a prospective student now I’d certainly be deterred further from higher education.”
Many students have chosen to fight back against the government’s decision. Eva Spencer, a second year student who studies history at the University of London, has been using social media to get her message out and to protest the government’s plan.
Speaking to The Student, Spencer gave her reasons for protesting against the maintenance grant axe: “It’s going to get to a point where only the elite groups are going to get into the top level of employment because they are the ones who can afford to go through the university system. Unless the system changes to accept people without HE qualifications then I fear that university will go back to being exclusively for those who can afford it.”
Ellie Fleming, who is in her second year at the University of Gloucestershire, told The Student that she had contacted her local political party to organise a demonstration to protest against the decision at her university. Fleming said that she would “not have been able to afford university” without her maintenance grant. She continued: “I would still be in a dead end town without any hope of progressing.”
The NCAFC also told The Student that they were continuing to fight for MPs to reverse their decision, “The government has made it abundantly clear that they do not want to listen to the voices of working class students and that they want to suppress debate on this issue as much as possible.”
“That’s why it’s so important that students push forward with a grassroots campaign to reverse this decision, by taking to the streets, engaging in direct action and actively campaigning in any way we can. We need to show the government that students aren’t going down without a fight!”