Zarah Sultana has brought up the issue of “colossal” student debt, while calling out the fact that privately educated Boris Johnson has never had to worry about education costs.
Student debt is something that many people reading this will know about all too well. Going to university costs money. Lots of money. And loans are often the only way some students can pay. Those students are more likely to come from low-income, working-class backgrounds.
Under the 2010 coalition government, university fee caps were raised to £9,250, despite former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s pledge to scrap fees altogether. Five years later, George Osborne announced that maintenance grants would be scrapped and placed by yet more loans.
The average debt of UK students who graduated in 2018 was £36,000. The government only expects 30% of current full-time undergraduates who have taken out loans to repay them in full. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, those from poorer backgrounds will incur more debt because of the loans available to them.
It’s little wander that more than half of universities in England had fewer than 5% of white working-class students in their 2019 intakes. Or that grime artist Stormzy felt compelled to set up scholarships to get more BAME working-class students into Cambridge University.
University certainly shouldn’t be sold as the be-all and end-all (because it’s really not), but higher education should always be available as an option for young people, regardless of their social class.
That’s why MP Zarah Sultana’s speech in the Houses of Commons was a significant point this week. The Labour MP for Coventry South waved her latest Student Loans statement in front of the opposition while pointing out that Prime Minister Boris Johnson didn’t have the same financial worries.
Directing her speech to universities minister Chris Skidmore, Sultana said: “In 2010, like thousands of other young people I argued against the tripling of tuition fees. But the government ignored us. And now I currently have around £50,000 of student debt.”
She showed her statement, continuing: “Here is my latest student loan statement. As it says, in the last year alone, the interest added was £2022.65. So I ask the secretary of state, can he look me in the eye and tell me that it’s fair that working-class kids who want an education are forced to take on this colossal debt while his government is led by a man who went from the playing fields of Eton to a free education at Oxford?”
Skidmore responded by pointing out: “Students are paying nothing back until they start earning £25,725 and from April 2020 that will actually rise to £26,575.” He also explained a 62% increase in the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university since 2009 (although this ignores the fact that they are crippled by debt upon graduation).
“The current student finance system removes financial barriers for those hoping to study,” he said. “The government reviews support for students annually and has recently announced a 2.9% increase to maximum grants and maintenance loans for the 2020/21 academic year and this takes support for lowest income students to record levels.”
Conservative MP Andrew Percy added: “As a working class lad who actually did go to university, who voted against the tripling of tuition fees, can I urge [him] to ignore the class warfare of the honourable lady opposite.”
But Sultana has responded to the “class warfare” comment, writing on Twitter: “After I called out how unfair it is that working class kids are saddled with £50k of debt for going to uni, while the PM went from Eton to free education at Oxford, a Tory MP accused me of ‘class warfare’.
“Let’s be clear: If there’s class war, it’s the 1% who are winning.”
It’s worth referring back to a 2017 study by The Sutton Trust, which found that nearly a third of MPs are privately educated, compared to 7% of the overall population. Over one in 10 went to Eton. And 87% are university graduates – 24% went to Oxford or Cambridge, 30% went to non-Oxbridge Russell Group. It also should be noted that over 60% of Oxford University students went to private or grammar school.
And that’s only in parliament. University fees and student loans is an issue that must continue to be discussed so that everyone has an equal chance at higher education.