Friday 27-05-2016 - 16:27
Social media and the traditional press have been alive with stories about student loan repayments this week. Graduates have been receiving their student loan statements and have been faced with the reality of the student funding system created by the Coalition for English students back in 2010.
Their anger at the level of debt and the interest it generates should come as no surprise. Just last month, the Sutton Trust reported that, at £44,000, average graduate debt in England is now the highest in the English-speaking world, exceeding even that of students in the United States. These obscene debt levels are set to increase still further following the shameful decision to abolish maintenance grants in favour of higher maintenance loans for the poorest students. They will again if universities and colleges are given the power to increase fees as part of the higher education reforms announced this month.
Worse still, the government has made the situation worse for women and the poorest graduates in particular with a freeze on the repayment threshold until at least 2021, despite their promise to increase it by average earnings every year from 2017.
Given all this, the anger of graduates today will only grow as the graduates of tomorrow find they are in the same or an even worse situation.
But what can we do?
Evidently, this proves there is a desperate need for a different approach to higher education funding, one which doesn’t generate such astronomical debts. NUS believes in free education and we began to set out a vision for an alternative funding system in our Roadmap to Free Education – but this journey has to continue with us making the case that Quality Doesn't Grow on Fees and pressuring the government to abandon the link between the new teaching excellent framework and fee increases, and committing to greater public investment in higher education. I’ll be speaking to officers and activists over the next few weeks about how best to counter the government’s proposals and we’ll be issuing more information soon.
It underlines the need for maintenance grants for the poorest students to be retained and expanded, not substituted for yet more debt which threatens to restrict access and reduce students’ options. We will continue the fight for better maintenance support in the coming academic year – the immediate priority being to save NHS bursaries, and you can see a write-up of our lobby of parliament this week here.
And it shows the need for students and graduates to be given greater legal protection against retrospective and negative changes in student loan repayment terms and conditions. It is simply scandalous that the government can change these by a simple statutory instrument, with no guaranteed vote in parliament. There is a petition to ensure a debate on the repayment threshold freeze that you can sign here and again this is a campaign I’ll be continuing over the next few months.
The fact that so many graduates are shocked by the scale of their debt also illustrates one other issue: the failure of the government to communicate the features of the system. Once again, this shouldn’t surprise anyone given the wrecking ball taken to information, advice and guidance (IAG) services by the coalition – like the appalling decision to close AimHigher in 2010 or when they chose to slash funding for Connexions centres in 2011. Proper IAG is essential no matter how the student funding system works and proper funding and investment is another area we’ll be campaigning on. However, this isn't just about informing applicants about the ins and outs of the system but campaigning to change it and to secure terms and conditions - students have to trust the information they receive and the government has repeatedly broken that trust.
There’s plenty more you can do, whether that’s to write to your MP, demonstrate and take action on campuses or use social media to amplify the message. The anger felt by those graduates is powerful, and we must find a way to channel it at the government so they listen, and they act.