Student poverty and debt continue to be a living reality for thousands of working class students throughout Northern Ireland. The introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance awards will increase this hardship.
For too long poverty and hardship have been the realities of life for the vast majority of students.
For too long we have witnessed protest march after protest march, lobby after lobby and the all the while attack after attack. Government, both Tory and now Labour, have conducted a ruthless campaign against the living standards of students. A campaign against the idea of free, accessible, education for all.
With each attack higher and further education becomes more and more the preserve of the wealthy elite and the middle classes. Working class people find themselves squeezed out, excluded or forced into a life of poverty and ever increasing debt.
This onslaught on the living standards of students began back in 1984 with the halving of minimum maintenance grants, and abolition of Student Travel Cost reimbursement, everywhere but Scotland. Since then there has been cut after cut.
In 1986 Entitlement to Unemployment Benefit, Supplementary Benefit and Housing Benefit was taken away during Christmas and Easter breaks. Housing Benefit was withdrawn for students living in halls of residence.
In 1987 restrictions on payment of Housing Benefit for accommodation left unoccupied over the summer break were introduced.
In 1990 the Student Loans system was introduced, all students became ineligible to claim unemployment benefit throughout their studies, even in the months of the Summer break. The vast majority of full-time students had access to Income Support and Housing Benefit removed. The mandatory grant was frozen at 1990-91 levels.
The Government provided £25 million in Access Funds as a 'safety net' while up to £100 million had been paid in benefits (which are no longer available) the year before!
In 1993 the Government announced that the grant was to be cut by 10% each year for 3 years. Student debt through the loans system was to be increased accordingly to 'compensate'.
The 'Older Students Allowance', to help mature students into third level education was abolished for the year starting 1995/96.
1997 saw the introduction of the student fees. The existing grant and loan system was 'replaced' with 'income contingent loans for maintenance'.
All along this has been met with a largely ineffectual campaign from the NUS/USI. In the eighties chants of Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! - Out! Out! Out!, were replaced with chants of Major! Major! Major! - Out! Out! Out!. Then the Tory Government was replaced with the Labour Government. A change of Government has brought no change in attitude other than lip service. Lobby after lobby has not halted the onslaught. Nor will it.
Whatever Government gets in, at Stormont or Westminster, it will be the same story. The education system is all about churning out nicely produced managers and intellectuals to administer capitalism on the capitalist's behalf. University education for working class people is not one of their concerns. Perhaps barring us from it is.
What is needed to ensure we get access to higher level education without having to endure at least three years of poverty, hardship and debt is an aggressive campaign based on direct action. One that isn't afraid to take the fight to the doorsteps of those politicians and faceless bureaucrats who have no concept of what it means to be a working class student having to put in long hours in a shitty job, at the expense of study, just to make ends meet. While all the while sinking deeper and deeper into debt.
In the short term we need;
THE RESTORATION OF FULL GRANT MAINTAINED EDUCATION, WITH ALL THE COSTS OF LIVING INCURRED COVERED. THE END OF THE LOANS SYSTEM. ABOLITION OF STUDENT FEES. TO MAKE COMMON CAUSE WITH WORKERS IN HIGHER AND FURTHER EDUCATION IN THE FIGHT AGAINST THE OTHER ONSLAUGHT ON EDUCATION - CUTS.
In the long term;
FREE EDUCATION WERE STUDENT'S TAKE AN ACTIVE ROLE AS EQUALS IN THE LEARNING PROCESS. AN EDUCATION SYSTEM RUN BY ALL THOSE WHO STUDY AND WORK IN IT.
Student debt and hardship is increasing.
In 1998 20% of students in Northern Ireland owed more than £4,000 to Student Loan Companies (1).
Students in further education colleges only receive an average of £656 a year in grants, student loans and parental contributions, yet have an expenditure of @ £3,000 a year - a £2,344 shortfall.
Levels of student debt are increasing with graduates expected to have an average debt of £4,497. The cost of attending university has gone up by 103% since 1994 while graduate salaries have gone up by just 17% (2).
In 1999 73.3% of full-time undergraduates, 71.4% of part-time undergraduates and 76.6 % of postgraduates were in debt. Mature students had substantially more debts than other students.
The Government estimates that a student completing a three-year course outside London starting in 1999 taking out the full loan available each year will owe a total of £10,165 at 1998 prices (4).
Footnotes; 1) NUS/USI Student Income and Expenditure Survey (1998). 2) Barclays Bank Student Debt Survey 1998. 3) The NUS Student Hardship Survey 1999. 4) Parliamentary Written Answer