Sunday, 11 November 2012
Making a bad situation worse for student funding in Jersey
I came back to Jersey for a few days this week to attend some of the public meetings with the Electoral Commission as well as an interview with Channel TV (which I'm working on trying to upload to the "interviews/ media" page). Since when I'm normally in Jersey the States is in recess, I though I'd pop in on Tuesday just to see if any drama kicked off. The session was reasonably tame, though I ended up having to listen in horror to an unexpected statement by the Education Minister Deputy Ryan and his plans to butcher the university grants system then followed by a not terribly impressive defence of the statement under questioning by his fellow States Members.
The statement can be read here - http://www.gov.je/News/2012/Pages/ChangesStudentGrants.aspx
The basic gist is that, unlike the current system, when a single parent cohabits with a new partner, that partners income will now be treated as a part of the gross household income for the purposes of working out how much of a grant the student gets. Account will also be taken of maintenance paid in or out.
Of course I should start by declaring an interest in this subject. I am the recipient of a student grant and I am from a single parent household. The majority of my university fees are paid by the States (though not all of it) and I am given around £4,500 a year for living costs (which in central London does not get me very far). The rest of my funding comes from the work I do in my holidays, the odd jobs I can get here and there during term, the generosity of my parents and a substantial amount of debt I am in with two different banks. And I'm one of the relatively lucky ones!
Whenever education funding is brought up, I instinctively get worried for the simple fact that the current system is completely undesirable and is already very unfair and inconsiderate for many people, that any change could well make a bad situation even worse. The problem is almost every households circumstances are completely different, so arbitrary rules across the board inevitably lead to injustice for many people, whether some are given too little or some too much.
These changes, like the previous system, will be no different in that some people will receive a more appropriate amount, and some will receive a less appropriate amount. Some people will say that the changes are entirely fair, on the basis that undoubtedly some families who can pay already but still get grants, will no longer get them. But some families will get less because of an extra person in the family who will now be expected to contribute. I am almost certain that the majority of those that will be worse off are going to be those from poorer families and those from broken families, and I find it reprehensible that these people should be the ones to bear most of the brunt.
Of all the students that go to university from Jersey, 70% of them receive a grant, 38% of them are from households with a single parent. Compared to the rest of the UK, we also send an above average proportion of our young people to university.
One thing that I think is just so insanely illogical is this idea that the grants should be worked out on the households "gross income". That is surely the worst way of working it out. Just because you have a reasonable gross income does not mean you are more able to afford to send your kids to university. It should be measured by "net income". What if as a family you have a reasonable household income, but you may have elderly parents that you have to support, or perhaps even a disable child that might require substantial care. If you have those costs, you might not have enough to send a kid to university.
Or also what about a family that has several children who are ambitious and talented and could make a lot for themselves out of going to university, but the family can't afford for all of them to go. It would be just as unfair to not let any of them go, or to just let 1 or 2 of them go.
But equally there are circumstances where a single parent may have moved in with someone who has a substantial income and doesn't have a problem with contributing, but the current system does not take them into account, so the government is giving more money than they have to for that students grant.
But forget the money for one moment and look at the social impacts. This idea of counting the new partners income can be hugely detrimental to family relationships. Firstly, a lot of step-parents just don't get on with their new partners kids. There's all sorts of reasons for this. Sometimes it's a marriage after the death of the previous partner which some kids find very difficult to accept, or sometimes it's just conflicting personalities. Just because the new partner now lives with them, does not mean that he or she is an active part of that child's life.
Or what about a partner who is relatively new to the family and who does not know that the relationship is destined to be very long term, is now going to have to contribute to the students fees? This would do nothing but add tension to the relationship.
We will end up with a situation where single parents, who may well have gone through a troubling time (a messy divorce, perhaps even domestic abuse, etc all sorts of things), are now having to weigh up the financial implications of starting a new relationship with someone. Their kids will be seen as a liability by potential partners who would not want to be supporting their partners kids right away. The fact it will cost them more to send their kids to university will affect how people form their families and seriously impact on their happiness. Most parents will always choose their kids above their partner, and I would have felt so bad if for example my mother had decided not to have a new partner because she was worried about not being able to help fund me going to university.
Whatever you believe the role of government in our society should be, surely no one believes the government should be doing things that will so blatantly affect personal relationships so badly?
I've spoken to a lot of friends and young people about what they think this means for their circumstances. One friend told me about how his step-father had a real problem with him going to university for some reason. But his mum was adamant that if he wants to go, he should go, so she is even considering selling her house and finding a smaller place to get the money to send him. Why should his step-dad be a part of the equation? He isn't supportive of the idea and should have no right to adversely impact on someone's future who is not his child, yet if the changes go ahead, his income will be counted.
The point I'm really making here is that there is no perfect way of funding students within the current framework. You will always have a system that unfairly perpetuates inequalities and offers help to those that don't need it, whilst leaving out those that do. The only way within this means-testing framework to achieve a fair result across the board is to judge each and every student on a case by case basis taking into account all of their circumstances, but this is just obviously impractical.
So I'm going to suggest something radical that I believe is the only way to fairly fund students. The parents have to be taken out of the equation. When a someone turns 18 years old, they are an adult. They are technically legally independent. So why should their parents income be taken into account? I say, the only person whose income should be judged is the student themselves. If they happen to have a substantial income, or if they inherited some wealth from somewhere, they can and should fund themselves. But for most students, their income is close to nothing so they should be funded 100%.
That is the only way to fairly fund students. But it's radical and it's expensive. Perhaps the answer is that fewer people should be going to university.
For me, because my passion was for law, not going to university was never really an option for me. But that wasn't the case for many people I was at school with. During 6th form when we were being encouraged by the school to apply for university, I felt that many of those that were not going to university or were on the fence about it were sort of being pressured because it was "the thing to do". This attitude has to change. One of the reasons that higher education has become so expensive and governments are less able to fund it is because of the sheer volume of people deciding to go. University should not be considered the zenith of educational opportunities for young people. Some people are just better suited to other ways of taking their life forward. Plenty of my mates who left school at the same time I did to get jobs are doing really well for themselves, some are working in finance, others have apprenticeships etc and that was right for them. The choices they made should not be denigrated over choosing university.
But back to the proposed changes, you have to ask yourself what the actual purpose of them is? Why is the minister doing it?
If you'd seen the report on Channel TV on Wednesday night you would gather that he was just trying to make the system fairer so that the money saved could be "ring fenced" and redistributed to everyone equally. Doesn't sound so bad. But then the next day he was made to apologise because this is not the case at all. The money being saved is going straight back to the treasury. It's a cut.
Quite how he made such a fundamental mistake is beyond me. The whole motivation behind the changes is to implement a cut. That's it pure and simple. The government is wanting to save money, and so as well as not giving people like nurses, teachers and firemen a pay rise, they're also seeking to extract some savings out of students. After three years they will save £500,000 a year. How he can talk about the changes as if they were part of a totally different context with a totally different motivation is disgraceful. I'd call it spin, but it's not, it's just a lie.
That'll be half a million pounds every year that isn't being invested in the future of the island, for a system that is not fairer. This is the real issue here. Students are being made to accept austerity when they, more than any other section of society, are not to blame for the causes that have led to this economic situation.
In the UK when the coalition government decided to scrap the Education Maintenance Allowance and raise university tuition fees, the Nation Union of Students got tens of thousands of students onto the streets to protest against it and make their voices heard. But no such movement exists in Jersey... Yet.
Students (and by extension, their parents) are being asked to accept an unfair and unjustified cut. They are not organised and will have no way that they can have their voices heard in any meaningful sense. They won't be getting in the media to make their case, they won't be attending scrutiny meetings or negotiating with the government. Students in Jersey need a group that will advocate for their interests. They need to organise themselves because together their voices will be strong. They need a Jersey Union of Students to put their case across. The reason that Jerseys government gets away with things like this is because the people aren't willing to stand up to them.
Over the next year Jersey is going to face unrest. We've already seen it with the bus drivers strike and we are soon going to face it with the teachers and nurses going on strike. Students are facing attacks too and need to be part of that struggle.
I'm going to do my best to encourage students in Jersey to make their voices heard and oppose this cut. You should show them solidarity too!
More will follow on from this, I am sure of it.