Newcastle’s MP calls for action on ‘crippling’ student living costs as top priority after universities review

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05 Jun 2019

Newcastle’s Labour MP Paul Farrelly has urged the Government to move swiftly to improve support for students and families facing ruinous living costs, as it finally published its year-long review into the future of higher and further education.

As the House of Commons returned on Tuesday, MPs debated the conclusions of the review, which proposes a headline cut in tuition fees, from £9,250 to £7,500 a year, and the reintroduction of maintenance grants of £3,000 for the least well-off students. 

If implemented, however, lower earning students might end up having to pay back more debt, with the repayment period increasing from 30 to 40 years, and the payback income threshold reducing to £23,000 from £25,000 at present.

And during the debate, Mr Farrelly said the plans would do nothing for ‘middle income’ families, who – through constituents’ experience – were facing the choice as to which of their children they could support, and which not, after leaving school.

“Most fair-minded Members will regret the tripling of tuition fees and what has happened to student support since 2010,’ he told Education Secretary Damian Hinds.

‘We fought a huge battle over higher education here after I became a Member of Parliament in 2001, and it has been dreadful to see how the system crafted back then has been so comprehensively dismantled.’

‘It is now living costs that are often so crippling for students and their families. So, as matter of priority, can I ask the Secretary of State what the review’s recommendations will do for families whose incomes are above the limit for all but the basic maintenance loan, and who are by no means wealthy, but have two or three children who aspire to go to university?’.

In response to questions, Mr Hinds conceded the Government still had much work to do to improve equality of opportunity: ‘Disadvantaged students are still less likely than their more advantaged peers to attend the most selective universities, or to have the support they need to successfully complete their degree,’ he said.

But he shed no light on any immediate steps to address living costs, where rents alone often exceed current maintenance loans, with families or term-time work – if it is at all possible – making up the difference.

‘You go to college or university to study,’ Mr Farrelly said after the debate. ‘There’s not enough part-time work for everyone and if you’re in labs or lectures all the time, it’s also not feasible. It’s unfair that less well-off students not only graduate with more debt these days, but have to work as well, if families struggle to give support.’

After 2010, the coalition Government tripled tuition fees from £3,000 a year, and after 2015 the Conservatives scrapped maintenance grants in favour of loans, while lifting   interest rates on total student debt – much of which is then written off after 30 years.

As things now stand, students with family income below £25,000 qualify for the maximum £8,944 maintenance loan – easing living costs, but increasing debt – while students from families earning above £62,212 receive only the minimum £4,168 loan.  
‘Just in the last year or so, I have had several students from the south and east of England at my local university at Keele saying they had brothers or sisters also wanting to study further,’ Newcastle’s MP added.

‘But, only getting the minimum loan, families had to choose who they could support or not, and in one case had asked the eldest to drop out for a year.’

‘This is just not fair. What this review is, in essence, doing is tinkering with a broken fees and loans system to make a bigger payback possible. But, after more than a year now, it is deferring obvious problems with living costs for a Government re-think.’

The review of Post-18 Education and Funding in England was launched in February, 2018 through an independent panel, chaired by former stockbroker Dr Philip Augar. Its report was published on 30th May, with 53 recommendations in all, which the Government will now consider before this autumn’s public spending review. 

To read the Post-18 Education and Funding Review in full, click here.

To read the full debate in the House of Commons, click here