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Parliamentary debate on maintenance grants: what happened and where next?

Tuesday 19 January 2016 NUS News

The House of Commons today debated the government's plans to scrap university maintenance grants. Here's what happened.

The government is moving to abolish university maintenance grants, which currently provide vital financial support for 500,000 students. They tried to pass the legislation through a committee of just 18 MPs, but following a campaign from students across the country a full debate on the issue was eventually forced.

Shadow HE Minister Gordon Marsden opened the debate by challenging the ends and the means of the proposals...

What did Gorden Marsden cover?

  • He raised significant concerns with the impact that abolishing maintenance grants would have on BME, women and mature students, who the government’s own impact assessment says will be disproportionately affected; on FE institutions providing HE courses, who have already been hit by repeated budget cuts; and, crucially, on the accessibility of higher education for students from lower income homes. 
  • He also identified the dubious process being followed by the Government in not having a consultation on the plans; on not addressing concerns in the equality impact assessment; and, in trying to force these plans through the backdoor through a ‘statutory instrument’ and a delegated legislation committee rather than a proper debate in the House of Commons. 
  • He cited research from NUS throughout his speech, including findings that 40 per cent of parents say their children will be discouraged from university because of these plans; over a third of students say they wouldn’t have gone to university without grants; and, the poorest students will leave university with over £50,000 of debt.

What did Universities Miniser Jo Johnson argue?

  • Jo Johnson argued that the government's plans will give students more cash in their pocket; that they have not tried to hide these plans from MPs because the procedures and committees they have used were created by Labour 20 years ago; and, because their claims in their election manifesto to create ‘sustainable higher education funding systems’ give them the mandate to scrap grants.
  • He argued that because the numbers of disadvantaged students have increased since tuition fees were trebled (without acknowledging maintenance grants were simultaneously increased), there was no risk to accessibility if grants were scrapped.

MPs subsequently debated the plans across the House. Labour MPs generally highlighted concerns over the levels of debt that this would leave students with and that no action was being taken to mitigate the concerns that the government’s own impact assessment raised about the disproportionate impact on BME students, women students, and mature students. Conservative MPs generally argued that the government was making great progress in social mobility and widening participation to higher education, and that students should see university as an investment and repay the costs incurred for the benefits they receive.

A number of MPs, notably from the SNP and SDLP, raised concerns that this issue had been deemed an ‘English only’ issue when their constituents – namely, English students at Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish universities – would be impacted by these plans.

In closing the debate, the Shadow Education Minister Kevin Brennan urged the government to answer fundamental questions surrounding the implementation of this policy and to acknowledge that former Conservative Ministers themselves championed maintenance grants in previous administrations. He seriously questioned why MPs representing constituencies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be denied a vote on an issue that affected their constituents.

The government’s concluding speech, given by Education Minister Nick Boles, accused the Opposition of misleading students about the differences between student loans and commercial loans.

After a non-binding vote on a call from Labour for the Government to abandon their plans, (which lost 292 to 306), MPs voted on whether or not to formally reject the regulations that will abolish maintenance grants. The results of this vote were:

In favour of keeping grants: 292

In favour of scrapping grants: 303

This vote was also the first 'double majority' vote in Parliamentary history, where the results of just English MPs were also recorded. This result was 203, for grants - 291, against grants.

Only Conservative MPs voted to scrap maintenance grants, while votes to save maintenance grants came from every other party that voted. Two Tories - Jason McCartney, MP for Colne Valley, and Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East - voted against their party. 

What happens next?

We’ve secured a vote in the House of Lords on Monday 25 January and we’re now working tirelessly to ensure that Lords have the same information as MPs.

The government have lost a number of votes in the Lords already and whilst this is a non-binding vote, and will not change the result, it will ask further questions as to how the government has pushed through such a terrible policy.

We’ve sent out information to your students’ unions across the UK to help them lobby members of the House of Lords who have links to their institution. If you’d like to lend your support, we recommend that you look up your local students’ union here and get in touch with them.