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Higher Education The university system is failing the poor

New guidance from a body that supposedly seeks to widen participation seems to be disregarding the security and safety of its poorest students, writes BETHANY PICKERING

THE marketisation of education is not a new conversation. The UCU strike, a strike over lecturer pension cuts, is dominating the news. Debate about interest rates on student loans and their disproportionate consequences for low-income students are also very current.

The hugely inflated rates of pay for universities’ highest management has also been an ongoing discussion for many years, even more so following the discovery that 95 per cent of vice-chancellors have been involved in setting their own salaries.

As tensions rise over these various issues, indicative of a system crumbling under the weight of neoliberalism, it is easy to miss smaller changes that nonetheless have a devastating impact on working-class students. Particularly when these changes are made under the progressive veneer of widening access.  

In 2016, Sajid Javid, secretary of state for business, innovation and skills and minister of state for universities, science, research and innovation Jo Johnson sent a directive to Office of Fair Access (Offa) director Les Ebdon.

Largely, the directive said what one would expect to see from the government to this kind of body.

There were mentions of closing the Bame attainment gap and reaching out to mature students.

These are positive changes in higher education, regardless of how dubious they may be coming from a Conservative government.  

A small but significant part of this directive, however, focused on financial support for low-income students.

It stated that “we want you to be firmer with institutions to ensure their investment is allocated to the most effective interventions, encouraging more investment in outreach and other activities and less on financial support.

“Outreach inspires students into higher education and maximises the numbers reached.”

Here we see the beginning of what may become a huge problem for working class students.

Since then, Offa, a body with the power to restrict universities from charging full tuition fees as well as fine them or deduct grants, has been demanding that higher education institutions justify their financial support spending using “robust evaluation” and evidence.

This evidence, however, is not nearly as clear-cut as Offa would have us believe.

In fact, it seems that the only evidence that the body has considered is whether or not it affects students’ decisions to enter higher education and whether it affects the university choice they make.

It’s easy then to see how these reforms may be seen through the damning lens of marketisation.

Although evidence does suggest that the financial support individual institutions offer doesn’t have a significant effect on university choice or the choice to attend university, it also found that a third of students report negatively on their wellbeing due to the financial burden of meeting rent and basic survival costs.

It found that excessive working hours, debt and lack of access to family support were highly negative on the wellbeing of students.

It also stated that financial burden had been a key reason that many low-income students had considered dropping out, with research indicating that students want more cash support to tackle these issues.

Ultimately, this new guidance from a body that supposedly seeks to widen participation seems to be disregarding the security and safety of their poorest students.

Very little evidence is available as to whether reducing bursaries will affect the grades achieved at university by low-income students.

The new evaluation methods encouraged by this body appear to disregard matters such as mental health and ability to participate in extra-curricular activity, especially with regard to a likely drastic change in work-study balance.

Even the evidence it has used to monitor drop-out rates is pre-2012, when tuition fees were just a third of what they stand at now and grants were still part of the student finance structure.

At Queen Mary, University of London, the bursary restructure will come into effect this September.

A high proportion of low-income students can expect to lose half or even all the bursary they would have received if they began their course in the 2017-18 intake.

Although a minimal increase was made to the bursaries for students with parental incomes under £15,000, this represents such a small minority of the student population that the restructure shows a marked redirection of funds away from financial support.

Their justification reflects Offa guidance — they found no evidence of low-income students in receipt of the bursary dropping out more than higher-income students.

Whether this is because of the bursary seems not to have been considered. Many are now calling for the student union to take direct action against the university, including protests and occupations, to demonstrate the opposition of the student population to these dangerous changes.

A new campaign group, QM Students Against Bursary Cuts, is encouraging students to attend the student union’s “all members meeting” in order to mandate the student union to support this direct action.

It seems likely that we will see more campaigns like this springing up over the coming years.

Although bursary restructures are happening unevenly across higher education, Offa does not appear likely to relent from pressing universities into lowering bursaries and we will soon be seeing what effect this has on a significantly affected working class student population.

 

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