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What happened at the opposition day debate on grants?

Tuesday 19-01-2016 - 17:04

Did you miss the live coverage of the debate on government plans to scrap maintenance grants for the poorest students? We've put together a summary of what happened...

Shadow HE Minister Gordon Marsden opened the debate by challenging the ends and the means of the proposals...

What did Gorden Marsden cover?

  • He raised significant concerns with the impact that abolishing maintenance grants would have on BME, women and mature students, who the government’s own impact assessment says will be disproportionately affected; on FE institutions providing HE courses, who have already been hit by repeated budget cuts; and, crucially, on the accessibility of higher education for students from lower income homes. 
  • He also identified the dubious process being followed by the Government in not having a consultation on the plans; on not addressing concerns in the equality impact assessment; and, in trying to force these plans through the backdoor through a ‘statutory instrument’ and a delegated legislation committee rather than a proper debate in the House of Commons. 
  • Throughout his speech, the Shadow Minister cited research from NUS, including findings that 40 per cent of parents say their children will be discouraged from university because of these plans; over a third of students say they wouldn’t have gone to university without grants; and, the poorest students will leave university with over £50,000 of debt.

What did Universities Miniser Jo Johnson argue?

  • Jo Johnson argued that government's plans will give students more cash in their pocket; that they have not tried to hide these plans from MPs because the procedures and committees they have used were created by Labour 20 years ago; and, because their claims in their election manifesto to create ‘sustainable higher education funding systems’ give them the mandate to scrap grants.
  • He argued that because the numbers of disadvantaged students have increased since tuition fees were trebled (without acknowledging maintenance grants were simultaneously increased), there was no risk to accessibility if grants were scrapped.

MPs subsequently debated the plans across the House. Labour MPs generally highlighted concerns over the levels of debt that this would leave students with and that no action was being taken to mitigate the concerns that the government’s own impact assessment raised about the disproportionate impact on BME students, women students, and mature students. Conservative MPs generally argued that the government was making great progress in social mobility and widening participation to higher education, and that students should see university as an investment and repay the costs incurred for the benefits they receive.

A number of MPs, notably from the SNP and SDLP, raised concerns that this issue had been deemed an ‘English only’ issue when their constituents – namely, English students at Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish universities – would be impacted by these plans.

In closing the debate, the Shadow Education Minister Kevin Brennan urged the government to answer fundamental questions surrounding the implementation of this policy and to acknowledge that former Conservative Ministers themselves championed maintenance grants in previous administrations. He seriously questioned why MPs representing constituencies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be denied a vote on an issue that affected their constituents.

The government’s concluding speech, given my Education Minister Nick Boles, criticised the Opposition for misleading students about the differences between student loans and commercial loans. Nick Boles also insulted NUS directly, lambasting opposition parties for trying to ‘curry favour with the National Union of Shroudwavers… I mean, Students’.

After a non-binding vote on a call from Labour for the Government to abandon their plans, (which lost 292 to 306), MPs voted on whether or not to formally reject the regulations that will abolish maintenance grants. The results of this vote were:

In favour of keeping grants: 292

In favour of scrapping grants: 303

This vote was also the first 'double majority' vote in Parliamentary history, where the results of just English MPs were also recorded. This was result was 203, for grants - 291, against grants.
 

What happens next?

Whilst it will be difficult to win, there is a non-binding vote in the House of Lords on Monday 25 January that we have secured. We want to ensure that Lords have the same information as MPs. The government have lost a number of votes in the Lords already. Whilst this vote will not change the result, it will ask further questions as to how the government has pushed through such a terrible policy.

You will already know some Peers who may be associated to your university, for example as your Chancellor. But we have put together resources for you to be able to Lobby a Lord more successfully by being targeted.

  • Students' unions can: use our google.doc resource with contact details for Lords - click here and find out if there is a Lord who might be best for you to contact (e.g. if they already have a relationship with your institution).
  • Students' unions can: use our template letter to Lords - download here
  • Students' unions can: use our updated briefing to send to Lords - download here
  • Students' unions can: refer back to the briefings on the campaign that we've already put out here.

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