Tuesday, 10 June 2014

All students are equal………

I was very proud of the expansion of higher education a decade ago, which reversed the 36% cut in funding per student of the previous decade. The investment saw a significant increase in the number of students who came from families which had little or no experience of university. Many very able young people had thought that ‘university wasn’t for them”.

For instance, between 1998 and 2008, there was a 46% increase – from 1415 to 2070 - in the number of young people from Sheffield going to university. In my own constituency, there was a 57% increase and, in the neighbouring Brightside (David Blunkett’s) constituency, it was a massive 159%.[1]

Investment was also made specifically to boost access for students with disabilities, who were significantly under-represented in the university population, not because of lack of ability, but because of problems of physical access or the inability to fund essential aids for learning.

Many people have forgotten that, in 2009, Nick Clegg supported a big cut in higher education funding which would have meant that 200 fewer young people each year from Sheffield would go to university. So much for warm words about raising educational aspiration; it was clear that this funding reverse would mainly hit those families and communities which historically had the lowest access to advanced learning. This policy reverse was completely over-shadowed by Nick Clegg’s subsequent ditching of his tuition fees’ promise.

Now, as well as trebling tuition fees, the coalition government has managed to create a black hole in student finances and develop a funding system that is haemorrhaging taxpayers’ money. The all-Party Public Accounts Committee says taxpayers are facing a hole of as much as £80 billion in the student finances. Debt write-off rates from the tripled tuition fees are now so high that the new system is almost as expensive as the one it replaced.

So, the government is proposing more cuts in spending on higher education.

Amongst these is a proposal to ‘modernise’ (ie cut!) the Disabled Students Allowance (DSA), because the current level of funding is ‘unsustainable’ (ie too big!). The expenditure on DSA is about £125m a year – a drop in the ocean of the overall budget.

In 2013, there were 215,370 disabled students in the UK, representing 8.6% of all higher education students. 62.2% of disabled undergraduates who receive DSA reached a first or upper second class honours degree, compared to 60.7% of disabled students not receiving an allowance. More than 2,400 students at Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University currently receive some DSA.

The exact amount of DSA for an individual is agreed after a needs assessment conducted by a specialist staff member in consultation with the student. The amount is specifically related to the student’s particular needs, whether that be technology or transport.

I strongly support equal access to higher education. It shouldn’t be determined by whether your parents went to university or not, or whether they can afford to support you or not, or, if you have a disability, whether you can only do the course if you can personally and independently afford to pay for the necessary aids.

I fear that this government is reversing all the progress was made in equal access after 1997. Unless you are wealthy enough for this not to be an issue, someone in your family is almost certainly going to lose out.

[1] The number of young people from each Sheffield parliamentary constituency entered an undergraduate course at a UK higher education institution in (a) 1997-1998 and (b) 2007-2008:

                                    1997/8             2007/8             Increase
Brightside                       85                  220                  158.8%
Central                         190                  355                    86.8%
Hillsborough                 260                  410                    57.7%
Attercliffe                     175                  275                    57.1%
Heeley                          190                  265                    39.5%
Hallam                          515                  545                      5.8%
Sheffield                     1415                2070                    46.2%