Eugene Tinnelly is a founder member of the Student Poverty Alliance Group. He writes for us about the cuts in higher education
Education should be free. Whether it be primary level or third level, your access to education should not be determined by what’s in your wallet but instead, by what’s in your brain. People will say that’s an idealistic way of looking at it but tell that to the people of Denmark who receive universally free education. Unfortunately the reality here, is that education is not free and will remain something which must be paid for for the foreseeable future. We are lucky in one sense in that we have our student fees covered by a loan and, depending on your home income level, a maintenance grant to help cover living expenses. At least that’s how it currently is.
George Osborne’s latest budget has scrapped the maintenance grant in the UK and replaced it with a further loan. That would mean potentially £15000 of debt accumulated each year of study for a student in England. Of course it being a devolved issue it will not effect students here but with a rise in tuition fees on the agenda within the next year, one would fear that it won’t be long before our maintenance grant is targeted too. This would drive potential students from working-class backgrounds away from university education. The worrying prospect of upwards of £60,000 of debt when leaving university is enough to make anyone question is it really worth it? Is the standard of education suddenly going to rise along with the fees? The simple and obvious answer is no.
Add in the cost of text books, social life, accommodation and food, students’ pockets will start to feel a lot lighter after this budget and with the current impasse over the Stormont House Agreement. Over the last five years we’ve seen the number of people using food banks in the UK rise from around 40,000 to over 1,080,000 and that number is continuing to grow as the levels of public expenditure decreases. How many of those using food banks are students who have been driven into poverty by continuous cuts to the education sector and simultaneous rises in fees? It’s not difficult to imagine that the answer would be considerably high. The last rise in tuition fees in England saw an almost 20% drop in applications for universities. Already we have seen people becoming disillusioned with the prospect of being saddled with debt for all their working life.
What’s makes these cuts even more hard to stomach is the context in which these cuts have been implemented. Queen’s University has, like any third level institution, had to endure tough cuts in the last couple of years. However they must not have gotten the Tory “we’re all in this together” memo. As vital student services such as free counselling, student bursaries (worth £500 a year) and union officer positions amongst other services have been cut, the lifestyle of those at the top remains untouched and seemingly untouchable. The Vice-Chancellor receives a salary of £250,000 a year. And a house of residence. And a chauffeur. And a personal chef. And a wine budget. We could go on and on. The VC of the University of Ulster is on a salary of £1000 more after a recent wage hike and is the highest paid official in Northern Ireland. While some students go without a meal some days and struggle to keep up with the financial burden of studying, those right at the top of these institutions live the life of King and in times of austerity, seem to think a pay rise is acceptable.
The obvious question is why are students not taking action? We saw how students gathered in massive numbers to protest tuition fees rising during the first term of government for the Conservatives, so why are not doing the same now? It’s like most protests or demonstrations, it won’t actually happen until the cuts and fee rises have been made and come into effect and by then, its too late. Students need a strong voice. An often politically disengaged group need the issues that they will be facing made clear to them before they’re faced with an even harsher reality. They need their unions and to bring them the message. The responsibility also must fall on the parties at Stormont to ensure all is done to protect our education services. Students need be united in opposition to more cuts, more fees and more debt. While Iain Duncan Smith may sit happy cheering the new living wage, himself and fellow Tory ministers need their lives made uncomfortable by students. With there being little use in protesting when the changes have been made, time is running out for students to stop education becoming a product for the privileged.