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Student support: restricted modification of repayment terms

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 21st November 2016.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 6:45 pm, 21st November 2016

I rise to speak to Labour’s new clause 5, which would revoke the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015, which moved support for students from a system of maintenance grants to loans. I also rise to speak to Labour’s new clause 6, which follows on from the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend Wes Streeting on new clauses 2 and 3.

At a time when the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission reported only last week that our nation is facing a crisis in social mobility, it is a travesty that I have to stand here today to talk about the problems caused by scrapping maintenance grants and replacing them with a further loan, disproportionately affecting students who come from a low-income background. As this House knows, students in the UK already face the highest levels of student debt in any European country. Figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that the average student in the UK will leave university saddled with £44,000-worth of debt, and the Sutton Trust has suggested that the figure could go even higher. This figure is only the average; for students from low-income backgrounds, it will be much higher, and these changes will make it higher still.

Labour Members have pledged to bring back the maintenance grant. My hon. Friend Angela Rayner, in the Bill Committee and recently at the Labour party’s north-west conference, gave powerful testimony as to why that is. It is not just because we cannot afford to lose these people from our economic process, or just because it will help to aid social mobility generally; it is because by doing so we will empower hundreds of thousands of people who will otherwise lose their life chances, or be in danger of that, under this process. There were half a million students in the last year before the Government scrapped the grant, many of whom were in higher education in further education colleges. If a significant number of those students do not take out loans because, for a variety of reasons, they do not wish to do so or are unable to do so, we will increase still further the progressive weakening that this Government have put on to the higher education and FE sector, which is currently servicing some 34,000 students who got the grant in the last year before the Government scrapped it, including a significant number of people in my own constituency pursuing higher education at the excellent Blackpool and The Fylde College.

The Government—I give credit to them for it—have put into the Bill the ability for FE colleges to have their own degree-awarding powers, and Blackpool and The Fylde College is one of those, but it is rather perverse then to introduce something that will weaken the support for such colleges. The Government seem not to think in holistic terms about further education. Taking people in higher education in further education colleges out of the equation will weaken the economic and social base of those colleges. The Government do not give anywhere near enough attention to that.