NUS slams university grants change which 'punishes poorer students'

Updated: 

The National Union of Students (NUS) has attacked the Government's decision to replace maintenance grants for the poorest students, saying it will leave them "set up with a lifetime of debt".

From Monday, the grants, worth around £3,500, have been replaced with additional loans which will have to be paid back at the end of an undergraduate course, once they are earning more than £21,000.

NUS vice president Sorana Vieru told BBC Breakfast: "It's a disgraceful change that basically punishes poorer students simply for being poor, so they have to take a bigger loan than those students from privileged backgrounds.

"It could put off students from underprivileged backgrounds from applying, who might not understand how the loan system works, or are very debt-averse. We also know that mature students are way more debt-averse than younger students and BME (black and minority ethnic) students perceive student debt on a par with commercial debt."

The change, announced by then chancellor George Osborne in 2015, was opposed by Labour, which said it would hit those from low-income homes hardest. But it was approved by MPs and peers.

Speaking in January, Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson said the change "helps balance the need to ensure that affordability is not a barrier to higher education, while ensuring that higher education is funded in a fair and sustainable way".

The Department for Education declined to comment further on Monday.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told the BBC that students would end up with more money in their pocket overall, despite the withdrawal of the grants.

He said: "In the past they had about £7,500, in future they will have £8,200.

"But it will all have to be paid back if they get a well-paid job, whereas in the past around £3,000 or so did not have to be paid back."