Grants or loans? That’s not the problem.

I’m late to this one, but I’ve just read the Telegraph’s article on the NUS survey that found more than half of students thought the maintenance grant was absolutely essential for them to be able to go to University.

Well, newsflash: it isn’t – and here’s why: surveys are really good at giving opinions, and opinions are really really easy to get wrong.

Think Jeremy Clarkson, Katie Hopkins or anyone else who you’ve disagreed with lately or who popular opinion (read: what the media people think will sell papers/subscriptions/get clicks) dictates is currently not someone we should like.

Every single student who is currently at university has, if they’re in the right income bracket for one, got a maintenance grant and, if they want one, a maintenance loan and tuition fee loan too.

So, it’s not really all that surprising that when asked “Do you agree with us taking away this free thing you get?” gets a no. In fact, it’s surpassing that just 35% of the tiny sample said it’d make a difference to them.

To me, the maintenance grant cut isn’t really a cut but more a cost-saving change. First-time students will still be able to get their hands on the same amount of money for maintenance, it’s just that they’ might have to pay it back eventually.

That’s not great- because we’d all rather have free stuff than stuff that costs – but it’s also not terrible. It won’t physically stop poorer families from sending their kids to better themselves at Uni, and my guess is that in reality it won’t affect the numbers of applications UCAS sees either.

All despite the massive glut of unemployed graduates that we’ve got – and perhaps that’s the problem.

We really like to discuss and deride the growing cost of heading to university, quoting figures most 18-year-olds can’t even comprehend, but at some point should the conversation not switch round to whether University is worth it?

We need to remember the point of educating people

The reason we like to send people to have some more education is two-fold. Firstly, having a better-educated population is good for us because it means that people contribute to society and advance our technology and achievements. Secondly, higher education allows graduates to do jobs that earn them more money and that, in turn, helps get families up the ladder too.

That two groups benefit means that logically there’s two people picking up the tab: society as a whole, paying for the contribution graduates will make when they’re done, and the individual, making an investment so that they see greater returns later in life.

So it doesn’t matter whether graduates end up with £3,000 debt or £50,000 as long as the consequential earnings are enough to pay down that investment and still earn ‘more than you would’ve’ – right?

The headlines of £50,000 of debt (which sounds a lot, I admit) and surveys like this one from the NUS that support them, are just unhelpful distractions from what we must admit: we don’t need everyone who currently goes to Uni to go and study what they are studying. And it’s nothing to do with whether they’re poor or not.

We have quite a few unemployed graduates just hanging around, or doing menial jobs, to support the case that we should probably be a bit more discriminatory in our universal offer of University.

Not, as you might assume, by locking poor people out of university but instead by subject. By making our investment, as well as each person who choses to take up higher education’s investment, count a little bit more we could easily cut the number of unemployed graduates.

As the NUS survey shows, people like free stuff over not-free stuff and in these ‘times of austerity’ we must pick what we can and cannot fund, so would we not be better targeting our resources where we really need them?

If you want to complete a degree in a subject we don’t ‘need’ you to study then you’re welcome to do just that, but you’re going to have to take the risk that you’ll never pay off the £50,000 debt you’ll end up with.

On the other hand, if you fancy completing a degree as a scientist, or a doctor or something else that we desperately need then we might just see it that you come out with half that left to pay off yourself.

And, of course, there’s no need for any of this money to change hands until you’re earning. No poor people locked out of higher education but a substantial return on the millions we’re investing each year both financially and as society.

Given how the fee system is set up, it’d be ludicrous not to make our investments work a bit better for us wouldn’t it?

Photo by John Keane

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