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Sunday, December 09, 2018

Will England follow Wales in restoring maintenance grants for students?

Some encouraging news in today's Observer, who report that Theresa May’s new social mobility tsar, Martina Milburn, believes that cutting university tuition fees risks failing to help the young people most in need of help to access higher education. Instead, she has suggested restoring maintenance grants designed to help poorer students meet living costs.

Unfortunately, the article is devolution-blind. It fails to acknowledge that Wales has already trail-blazed the way on this approach, having come to similar conclusions, despite the fact that just seventeen months ago, the paper's sister paper, the Guardian actually contained an article by the Welsh Liberal Democrats Education Secretary, Kirsty Williams, outlining how she implemented her party's manifesto promise and why.

Martina Milburn states: “Cutting fees will certainly help a certain sector. Whether it helps the right young people, I’m not convinced,” she said. “There’s also evidence that if you remove tuition fees altogether, there would be a certain number of young people from particular backgrounds who wouldn’t be able to go to university at all – but if you restore something like the education maintenance allowance or a version of it, I think you would widen participation. That’s a personal view. 

“This is something I think we would definitely look at in the future – on whether you restore something like the maintenance grants, which seems to me much more important than cutting fees.

That is a remarkably similar conclusion to the higher education funding review in Wales, led by Professor Ian Diamond. As Kirsty Williams wrote in July 2017:

The new support package in Wales will cover those who start their course in 2018/19, wherever in the UK they choose to study. Every student will be entitled to support equivalent to the national living wage. This means that eligible full-time students will receive maintenance support of £11,250 if they study in London and £9,000 per year elsewhere if they live away from home.

This will be delivered through a mix of loans and grants, unlike in England where zero maintenance grants are available. Very small, limited grants are available in Scotland, but they too are currently reviewing the system.

Welsh students from the lowest household income will receive the highest grant – £8,100 in their pocket, and more in London. Our estimates suggest that a third of full-time students will be eligible for that full grant.

Furthermore, our data shows that the average household income for a student in our current system is around £25,000. Under the new system such a student will receive around £7,000 a year in their pocket.

However, potentially the most radical element of our reforms is to provide equivalent support for part-time and postgraduate students. Wales will be the first in Europe to achieve this. For the first time, part-time undergraduates will receive similar support for maintenance, pro-rata to their full-time counterparts.

Martina Milburn would do well to look at what the Liberal Democrats have been able to achieve in Wales, particularly with regards to part-time students. We have made it possible for poorer students to fulfil their potential through education in a way that wasn't possible a few years ago. England should follow suit.
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