The National Union of Students (NUS) has taken the first steps of legal action over the government’s plans to scrap maintenance grants.
NUS lawyers have written a judicial review pre-action letter to Business Secretary Sajid Javid, in which they write that according to the Equality Act 2010 the proposed abolition of maintenance grants is a “serious and unlawful failure.”
The plans to scrap the maintenance grants for full-time students were announced in George Osborne’s budget back in July.
Alongside these changes the government also froze the loan repayment threshold of £21,000 for five years and permission for Higher Education Institutions to increase tuition fees in line with inflation from 2017/18.
As it stands students whose families income falls below £25,000 are eligible for grants worth up to £3,387 plus a loan of £4,047 if they live away from their home and outside of London.
Students whose family’s income is below £60,000 are entitled to partial grants on a sliding scale.
Starting in the 2016/17 academic year, the government wants to scrap the grants and replace them with loans.
The NUS has stated that the “abolition of maintenance grants, along with other welfare cuts, will mean students from low socio-economic backgrounds will be hit the hardest. We also believe that black and ethnic minority students are likely to be the most affected because of concerns over taking on debt and the terms of student loan repayments.”
They added that “The government has said it will carry out an ‘equality analysis’ when the regulations are laid, which is too little, too late”.
In the letter submitted by the NUS they claim that “the Chancellor made no reference to the work on student support that has been conducted in recent years by experts in the field, including government-commissioned work such as the Browne review and the Independent Commission on Fees (neither of which recommended the abolition of maintenance grants).”
The abolition of the maintenance grant will cause a significant increase in the debt of the poorest students from £40,500 to £53,000.
Currently almost 40 per cent of full-time students receive maintenance grants at a cost to the government of approximately £1.6 billion a year.
Back in August the government admitted that it had not investigated whether replacing student maintenance grants would deter the poorest students from attending university.
Jo Johnson, the Universities Minister, revealed that there was no research on the effect of the Budget measures on the number of students applying for and attending university.
He told Chuka Umunna, the then shadow Business Secretary, in a written Commons reply: “The growth in student numbers since 2012 [when fees trebled], including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, suggests that students are not deterred from entering higher education when asked to bear more of the cost of their study.”
Labour accused the government of abandoning “evidence-based policy” due to this revelation.
NUS President Megan Dunn said in a statement: “The #CutTheCosts campaign I launched in July has seen students and Students’ Unions across the country taking action to show the government our maintenance grants are not for scrapping. Today, I am taking steps to ensure these changes never come into effect. This reckless plan needs to be stopped.”
On Friday 18 September the NUS and over 60 Students’ Unions across the country took part in a national constituency-based lobby of MPs to fight the plans to scrap maintenance grants.
NUS research has shown that a third of students would have chosen not to go to university without having the help of the grant.
Salima Budhani from the legal firm Bindmans, the firm in charge of the case, said the NUS were calling for the plans to be halted in order for the government to “gather information to enable [them] to properly consider the complex equality consideration at stake.”
After such action, they call for “an open-minded reconsideration of the policy” to then take place.
A spokesperson from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said students would not have to pay back anything until their earnings rose over £21,000.
They added that the maintenance loan for all students would rise from next year to £8,200, “the highest amount of support ever provided.”
Michael Spence, Education Officer at the University of Manchester Students’ Union, told The Mancunion: “As a student movement we must do everything in our power to stop the abolishment of maintenance grants, so naturally I am delighted that the NUS is taking legal action against the government. If we do not stop the government’s actions on this then higher education will be put further out of reach for many in society.”
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