HE grants shift could hurt mature students and deserves full debate

14 January 2016

This morning, a small group of MPs forming a committee you’ve probably never heard of, voted through (with a majority of two votes) regulations which deliver some of the changes to higher education student finance promised at the Spending Review back in November 2015; namely to replace maintenance grants for full time to maintenance loans. The Government believes the change provdes a fairer landscape for students – the new maintenance loans will be worth more and will allow the system to cope with aniticipated growth in student numbers, following the removal of the student numbers cap. 

It is disappointing though that we won’t get the robust and transparant public debate that we’re used to seeing with significant policy change in higher education. In particular, it would have allowed the debate to have moved on from rather superficial discussions about systems and rates and costs to discussing impacts on particular groups of students. A more visible debate will also have allowed parliamentarians and the rest of us to look at what the evidence says about the types of students that will be affected. 

We are particularly concerned that the equality analysis associated with the student support regulations that the Deligated Legislation Committee voted through today highlights very clearly that replacing maintenance grants with loans will have a disproportiantely negative impact on participation of mature students in higher education. It says:

Mature students will be disproportionately impacted by the policy proposals to remove the full maintenance grant and replace with additional loan as well as the freezing of targeted grants. The proportion of students aged 21 and over that claim maintenance grant support is significantly higher than their representation in the population of all student support claimants. The available evidence points to the cost sensitivity and debt averseness of this group. The policy change presents a risk for the participation of older students in higher education.

As NIACE, we were very outspoken about the need for an accessible higher education system for adults. Now, as Learning and Work Institute, we are just as committed to that cause and will continue to campaign with partners for a fairer deal for mature students and a well-targetted student opportunities fund. We’ve already seen a 41 per cent decline in part time students in higher education and we don’t want to see further changes that make higher education even harder to access for adults at a time when access to up-skilling, re-skilling and lifelong learning has never been more important.