When people talk about the rising cost of education, the discussion tends to centre on tuition fees. This naturally leads to the argument from those in favour of fees that, due to student loans and the nature of their repayment, they are not really an obstacle. On Thursday night, Martin Lewis attacked Labour MP Chi Onwurah’s argument that tuition fees deter working class students from applying to university, contending that ‘it should not be called a debt, it’s a graduate contribution system.’ Regardless of your view on student fees, though, they are by no means the only increased cost of education – many arguably more troubling costs are regularly overlooked.
Since the beginning of the second year of my undergraduate degree I have worked in education - first as a notetaker for disabled students, then as a private English tutor, and now as an English intervention tutor. In all of those positions, I have seen cuts and increased costs of education have an undeniable effect on disabled students and those from poorer households. These are the real sites of perpetuation of inequality within the education system.
When I began working as a notetaker in 2014, my salary was funded by Disabled Students Allowance (DSA). For many students, including those with dyslexia, hearing or visual impairments, impaired motor co-ordination and ADHD (to give just a few examples), having someone to take notes for them was the difference between passing and failing their degree. In 2016, however, the government made substantial cuts to DSA. As a result, many universities across the UK had to factor a large proportion of the cost into their budgets for the first time.
This inevitably meant a reduction in the amount of money available, which meant a change of regulations which had a manifest effect on those who relied on support to complete their degrees. In some universities, support staff were informed that students’ support should be cancelled if they missed even one scheduled appointment without giving twenty-four hours’ notice. For their students, one missed alarm or an unexpected illness or emergency could mean losing access to assistance and resources without which they would be at a serious disadvantage. The NUS report on the effect of these cuts shows the extent of their damage to disabled students.
Meanwhile a 2015 report found that, in just under three years, 40,680 people died within a year of their Work Capability Assessment decision. With the Equality Act 2010 defining disability as ‘a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities’, the vast majority of these people would fall under that definition. In comparison to this horrifying statistic, cuts to DSA may seem insignificant, but they are evidently part a growing issue of disabled individuals being placed at a dangerous disadvantage. This issue is exacerbated by the axing of student grants, meaning that many students are forced to work to afford the living costs of university. For some disabled students and those on particularly demanding programmes of study, this simply isn’t possible, and thus university is no longer an option.
Another recent area of heated debate surrounding education has concerned the reintroduction of grammar schools. While those who support the proposal argue that entry is based on ability, not class, this blatantly ignores the impact that economic background has on academic attainment. As a private English tutor with an international company, I earned £19 per hour, while clients paid up to £60 per hour to the company. These sessions generally happened on a weekly basis. My training involved a module specifically on tutoring for the 11+ exams – parents of students applying to grammar schools made up a significant portion of our clientele.
Currently, around two thirds of the UK population live in absolute or relative poverty after housing costs. Last year, Trussell Trust foodbanks gave out over 1.3 million emergency foodbank parcels, while there are around 250,000 homeless people in the UK. It was also recently revealed that over two million UK citizens are permanently living in their overdraft. With these statistics in mind, spending £60 per week on tuition is clearly out of the question for many parents, and children from privileged backgrounds are at an obvious advantage. Combined with the fact that poor students generally have lower academic attainment than their wealthier peers for a myriad of reasons, the cost of – and increased demand for – external tuition clearly puts children from working class households at a further disadvantage. This is an issue which will undoubtedly be compounded by the loss of free school meals, with foodbanks seeing a surge in reliance during summer holidays as parents struggle to cover the costs of additional meals.
Alongside free school meals which have now come under threat, students awarded Pupil Premium are also eligible for additional academic support. As an English intervention tutor at a secondary school, I work primarily with Pupil Premium students from year eight to eleven to help to ensure that they achieve their target English language grades. However, my timetable only allows me to work with a total of 144 students per year – fewer than the total amount of Pupil Premium students in the four cohorts I work with. Due to limitations of time and human resources, many working-class students are not able to access the provisions they are technically eligible to.
In a society in which access to education is hugely affected by poverty and disability, meritocracy is impossible. If the UK government want the population serving the country’s economy and culture to the best of their ability, they need to devise a means of reinstating and increasing funding and resources for disadvantaged students. With poverty – particularly child poverty – increasing, over five hundred children’s centres having closed since 2010, and university graduates earning between £10,000 and £16,000 more than non-graduates per year, they must do so urgently, not just for the nation, but for the wellbeing of its most vulnerable citizens.