There can be few more obvious examples of the gulf between the rhetoric of this Conservative government and its actions than the abolition of maintenance grants for the poorest students in higher education in England, which took effect for new students from Monday.
Earlier this year, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke of his ambition to double the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going into university. Yet at the very same time his government decided their own artificial deficit targets were more important than the life-chances of those same students.
Make no mistake: this policy makes that task far harder. Not only that, but it entrenches inequality in our education system as a matter of policy. Worse still, it may not actually save money in the long run, and raises the risk that the government will change the repayment conditions for student loans further down the line.
Scrapping grants makes expanding access harder: we know from various academic studies that students from poorer backgrounds are more debt-averse, and that particular groups – like student parents – all the more so. Even if students still decide to enter higher education, an increased debt burden will impact on their choices: research shows poorer students are more likely to live at home, or choose a different subject or a shorter course. Many such students also choose to work during term-time as a way of reducing their debt – but too many hours of work has an impact on attainment. All of these are pressures that will be felt less by wealthier students.
The inequalities created by the abolition of grants do not stop there. The lost grants have been replaced with higher student loans – but these are means-tested, with the poorest receiving the highest amounts. This means graduating with the highest debts, not forgetting the interest all this accrues. A poorer student in an otherwise identical situation to a wealthier counterpart with the same career path and earnings will thus ultimately have less to put towards starting a family, buying a house or saving for a pension.
All this because George Osborne decided reducing expenditure was more important. But here's the irony: it might not even achieve that goal, if the debt is never repaid and has to be written off further down the line. When it increased fees to £9,000, the government got its sums badly wrong and the cost of these write-offs threatened to exceed the cost of the system their reforms replaced. This has led to them fiddling with the accounting to bring that cost down. One of the ways they've achieved this is by freezing the student loan repayment threshold when they had promised to increase it by average earnings.
This change applied to existing borrowers as well as new students – exposing to students and graduates (and a horrified Martin Lewis) just how easy it is for their student loans terms and conditions to be altered at the whim of a minister. Trust in politicians is rock bottom – but it can and will sink further still if the government breaks its promises so easily.
The abolition of grants is a scandal – but we must be clear that this is only one of the more outrageous examples of a set of reforms that has loaded students with debt, while wasting time and money creating ever more flawed and hideously complex schemes like the teaching excellence framework, all in the name of exposing higher education to greater market forces.
We need to stop and rethink. Society benefits enormously from higher education and it should be open to all who wish to access it. The National Union of Students (NUS) believes education should be free – that means no fees, but it also means that we remove the barriers to participation, attainment and success. Scrapping grants serves only to raise them.
Reversing this appalling decision and restoring grants for the poorest students in society would be only the start, but it would be a vital step in the right direction. The last Labour government recognised its error after it made the same decision in 1998. Theresa May's government must now do the same.
Sorana Vieru is the Vice-President (Higher Education) of NUS.