Verify Before You Vilify

You have probably seen that student maintenance grants have recently been ‘abolished’ by the government. This is not entirely true. Within hours of a decision made in 90 minutes by 18 MPs, my Timeline and Twitter feed were rife with misleading headlines, shared and retweeted by part time economists and politicians. Few stopped to consider that the maintenance grants had not been axed, but transformed into loans.

The rhetoric of outraged Facebook philosophers was focused on two issues. First, that the ‘scrapping’ of maintenance grants was another vicious Tory attack on society’s most vulnerable. This time the half a million or so students who have benefited from grants. Secondly, as one Labour MP described, the decision was “underhand and undemocratic”. The disillusioned Tories had snuck through a measure without proper debate. Yes, on the face of it, it seemed appalling, worthy of the media headlines, marches on Westminster and an online petition calling for its repeal.

“The democratically elected government has decided that money needs to cut”

I wonder how many can say that they fully understood the change before sharing or retweeting. Instead, eyes and hearts are drawn to emotive headlines, written by the politically bias press. The subtlety that most headlines do not convey is that the grants are not being ‘axed’, ‘scrapped’ or ‘cut’, they are being converted to loans.

This means that a student entitled to £3,000 in grants will be entitled to a £3,000 loan. This is in addition to the tuition fee and maintenance loan. As a result, the change will leave no student immediately worse off. This does mean, however, that many students will leave university with a higher level of debt. Yet, the current system sees students pay back a fixed 9% on income over £21,000, the debt is cancelled after 30 years, and most students will never earn enough to fully repay the entire loan.

Whether or not you agree with austerity, the democratically elected government has decided that money needs to cut. This measure, according to The Independent, will save the government £3bn a year. We must also remember that current tax payers pay for these grants. As the Chancellor, George Osbourne put it: “there is a basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund the grants of people who are likely to earn a lot more than them”.

“I’d urge everyone to fully understand the system”

Students from lower income households should not be put off by this tweak any more so than when fees were increased so substantially. Let us not exaggerate the consequences. This money is still available to students and those with the lowest household income will continue to receive bursaries from their Universities. I’d urge everyone to fully understand the system before being scared off by this latest change.

Driven by social media, a petition for a full parliamentary discussion on the issue reached the required signatures for parliamentary debate. A motion to repeal the decision was defeated in the House of Commons after a similarly short debate to that of the original decision.

Perhaps this debate has satisfied the slight democratic deficit of the original decision but we should not and cannot expect a full debate on every penny that is cut by a government that has a mandate. Indeed, there are, and will be other policies, such as cuts to disability benefits announced last year, that will cause more hardship that do not receive the same media attention.

Clearly, we should be taking more time to understand policy before taking to the streets, signing petitions and associating it with an ideology that to many is seen as evil. It is surely no coincidence that the strong reaction has come from our generation, those most invested in social media. Don’t be so ready to blindly share things you see in the press and on social media, without fully understanding the details behind the headlines.

Alex Burge

Image credit: Garry Knight via flicker

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