Feb 11 2016

The Telegraph: Students must take notice of threats made to education

You can find the online publication here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/03/14/students-must-take-notice-of-threats-made-to-education/ 

When George Osborne announced his intention to axe the student maintenance grant and replace it with debt in his 2015 summer Budget there was an outcry across the country.

But the news that the proposal would not even be debated in the Commons, and instead would be passed by just 18 MPs in a “third delegated legislation committee” proved even more unpopular.

When Labour forced the issue into the spotlight the resulting debate in mid-January produced a meagre turnout by MPs – however the House of Commons wasn’t the only place that suffered from low attendance.

Last year, 40 per cent of Sheffield Hallam University students were provided with a total £31 million worth of grants. This made Hallam the third most reliant university on maintenance grants in the country and it is one of the nation’s largest higher education institutions.

As a postgraduate student at Sheffield Hallam University, I attended an event hosted by the union which broadcast the parliamentary debate live. Yet, despite there being over 30,000 students, I was dismayed to see theaudience in front of me numbered in the teens.

Considering how massive an affect the cutting of grants will have on students at Hallam, this issue should be as important a topic of discussion around the student halls as “Where are we pre-drinking tonight?” Yet I’ve been told the turnout for the other meetings and debates hosted for the ‘Grants Not Debt’ campaign were as low as the one I experienced.

I’ve had conversations with people who have openly admitted that they weren’t aware at the time that future students were having their grants turned into debt, but all openly disagreed with the move.

One of the friends I’d lived with for three years during my undergraduate degree said he’d seriously have reconsidered taking his chemistry degree. Similar door knocking campaigns in the student areas of Sheffield by both of the cities universities found the same response.

"Becoming more engaged doesn't mean sitting through an entire debate"
“Becoming more engaged doesn’t mean sitting through an entire debate” 

A graduate in 2015 already leaves university with over £35,000 worth of debt and so increasing this by £10,000 for the students who come from the lowest income backgrounds is unfair and unjustifiable.

We should bear in mind how contradictory the Government has been on the issue, research they carried out has stated these changes will disproportionately affect poorer, ethnic and mature students.

Even more conflicting is when we look at the Government’s justification for increasing university fees to £9,000 a year in 2010 when they said “that providing maintenance grants for the poorest students was key to their participation in higher education” .

The country is suffering from a debt crisis, there is no denying it, but to put more pressures on young people who already suffer from some of the worst prospects since records began is indefensible.

Now I sat and watched the entire debate in the union bar and it’s not something I’m expecting all students to do, for all its importance to the daily livelihood of many of the students here, there is an awful lot of waffling by members of the house.

But it is fundamentally important for all people of my generation that we become more aware of the changes that are happening around us.

Becoming more engaged doesn’t mean sitting through an entire debate, participating in door to door events or reading the news every day. Instead we need more engagement and discussion through the media and institutions such as student unions and the NUS to open the eyes of universities that suffer from a political apathy.

These institutions are where there is a sign for hope. Even though this particular battle is lost, the elected members of the Sheffield Hallam Student Union team are the most engaged and politically active the university has seen for a generation, who have promised to keep campaigning and spreading the message across the university.

When I asked the education officer about the cutting of grants and political apathy at Hallam he said: “It’s important that we fight for everything we can because otherwise it’ll all be taken from us, we’ve got to be aware that politics is more than just the ballot box; talk to your friends, go to a protest, join a political party, make your voice heard otherwise others will speak for us.”

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