Theresa May is silent on yet more student debt. What happened to 'sharing prosperity'?
Among the assortment of pledges Theresa May has borrowed from Ed Miliband was the new Prime Minister’s vague commitment to ‘allow more people to share in the country’s prosperity’.
But it’s been business as usual, of course. Theresa May’s government watched as George Osborne’s measure to scrap university maintenance grants came into force on Monday, cynically wedged between term time and A-Level results day.
The annual sum of £3,500 formerly handed out to those with low-income parents – to provide a semblance of the financial security and independence enjoyed by the wealthy – has been replaced with a loan.
Those who cannot depend on the charity of family, predominantly the young working class (and LGBT people disproportionately), are also those who enter our diminishing labour market with the fewest opportunities to navigate it – and they will now be even more heavily indebted for the privilege of doing so.
Abolishing maintenance grants is absurd even by the standards that commodify education, devaluing it into a hollow investment through which poorer students can seize lucrative careers and escape their class shackles: university debt functions as a tax, and a tax on living operates as a cyclical and lifelong penalty for poverty and disadvantage.
Indeed, the very day before this measure came into force, the Intergenerational Foundation reported that for most courses, at most universities, any ‘graduate premium’ had been so eroded by fees and debt repayment that it almost no longer made any financial sense to enrol.
Throughout Cameron’s premiership, Theresa May gave uncritical endorsement to the Tory line opposing restrictions on fees applied by exploitative landlords and the capricious letting agents aspiring to become them – helping price all but the wealthiest students out of the capital.
By this measure, then, abolishing grants is unique in its targeted and unabashed cruelty, further immersing a generation into debt long before they would acquire the political consciousness to object.
There was never even any economic need to abolish grants. Rather like tuition fees (trebled by this government), any ‘loans’ set up to replace the grants wouldn’t have been refunded into the public purse until long after Osborne’s arbitrary deadline to balance the books had elapsed.
But was never about the money. The Conservatives are launching a class war, cordoning off the public institutions that the people of this country have democratically fought to join and expand over decades.
Today’s youth are tomorrow’s workers – a poor, culturally and financially stagnating class faintly stirring in its hostility to Tory ideology that denies us homes, jobs and now an adequate education.
Our higher education system could be very easily resourced to its potential: tax the rich, and harvest an enthusiasm for academic research and intellectual prosperity across all strata of society through truly accessible free education.
Staff could be paid fairly and on secure contracts, providing students with the necessary training to develop the skills of which our society, retreating from our European partners, is so desperately barren.
Whoever wins Labour’s leadership contest will need a strategy to mobilise the many millions of young and working class people whom the last generation of politicians have ostracised and disenfranchised, and whom thus far only racists and xenophobes have bothered to court.
As after the Second World War, the answer lies in a mass social movement for homes, schools, jobs and health. The right of all to a free education, abolishing tuition fees and resourcing the liveable grants and stipends needed to fuel our universities, could vitalise the cultural and economic dynamism at the heart of this vision.
Since 2010, the Tories have indebted millions and reduced our universities to overblown exam factories and gentrified vanity houses; now they tax the right of the disadvantaged to access it.
The emasculation of our higher education system for working class people is, in other words, emblematic of what the Tories hope to do to the rest of our society.
A country is not saved through vapid bleating about ‘financial credibility’. The stakes are incredibly high, and the Left has to come out fighting like it never has before.
Mark Crawford is an officer at UCL’s students’ union and member of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts
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