The DfE is bowling student inequality at the funding fan

The crude strategy of keeping student maintenance funding below what is needed to survive was fully confirmed yesterday in the Department for Education’s own ‘equality analysis’. Armed with the information therein, they have deliberately pressed on with a game plan that  fails to offer adequate maintenance funds. They admit that this will divert students with fewer advantages away from a university education. It is wilful and shows a disregard for the deteriorating conditions.

Yesterday the Department for Education (DfE) released its impact assessment, ‘Higher education student finance 2023 to 2024: equality analysis’ (pdf).  The headline is that they anticipated, “a 2.8% uplift in undergraduate loans for living costs as well as the postgraduate masters and doctoral loans will adversely impact all students”.

Note that the better student support in  Northern IrelandScotland, and particularly Wales, where there will be a 9.4% uplift in 2023/24, makes England the outlier.

On the one hand, the DfE acknowledge that without any support “finance would represent a barrier to participation. Only those students who would be able to fund the upfront costs of their studies through private means (e.g. personal savings or income or commercial borrowing) would be able to participate in higher education.”

On the other hand, they accept that, “A 2.8% increase to grants and loans for 2023/24 will likely lead to a further erosion of students’ purchasing power and will not provide any catch up of the real terms losses already seen by students in the 2022/23 academic year due to high inflation.”

The implication that various protected groups are not greatly disadvantaged compared to the rest because everyone is in the same boat hardly stands up to scrutiny.  Indeed they admit, “many students, including from groups who share protected characteristics and from disadvantaged groups, will not be able to make the same spending decisions as they did previously with regards accommodation, travel, food, entertainment and course related items such as books and equipment, the costs of which will have been rising over time.”  It seems only the well off are to be cushioned from the fall.

Context.

TEFS has covered the issue of support for students with fewer advantages several times. The latest was only last week with, ‘Hold the front page: students must work longer and harder’. This condemned the idea that students could be allowed to work up to thirty hours per week part-time to plug gaps in the labour market.  This would simply widen an already serious gap in time available to devote to studies.  The ongoing starvation of maintenance funds will ensure this inequality persists.

The week before, TEFS reported the likely impact of the maintenance loan level rising in England by only 2.8% in 2023/24 with, ‘When student hardship hits the funding fan’.  The analysis released today confirms that the government is deliberately supressing student maintenance funding and were fully aware of the consequences.  Firstly, it drives more of the least advantaged out to work longer hours. Secondly, it deters them from considering higher education. It is effectively hardcore social engineering.

Emphasis on protected groups.

The equality analysis aim was an “Analysis of how changes made to student finance regulations for the 2023 to 2024 academic year will affect specific protected groups”.  Its thirty-three pages gives an overview on the impact on a list of ‘protected groups’ of students as noted in the ‘Equality Act 2010’.

So far so good.  But it’s only one side of the picture. The remit was deliberately narrow in its focus, yet in the analysis it begins to address the impact on different socio-economic groups with, “As disadvantage in education is still apparent in connection to family income and economic status, we will also consider the impact on individuals from lower income groups”. This is probably not what the government wished to hear, but it is there nevertheless.  The idea of ‘debt aversion’ is also there with, “This may be driven by a mix of sociological and cultural factors”.

The deterrent effect of the funding policy is also acknowledged in citing the evidence from government’s own survey report released in December 2022 ‘Parent, pupil and learner panel omnibus surveys for 2021 to 2022’. In the May results, they observed that, “three in ten (30%) pupils and learners in years 12 and 13 in 2022 said that their plans for education or training had changed because of the rising cost of living”.  This has not changed for the better. Perhaps everything is really going to plan.

Protected characteristics and a socio-economic duty.

The analysis is rooted in the requirements embedded in the ‘Equality Act 2010’. Labour’s Harriet Harman, Minister for Women and Equality, brought it into being stressing that “I brought forward the Equality Bill, now the Equality Act 2010, to ensure everyone has a fair chance in life”. It was a simple message from which all actions were supposed to flow.

It’s hard to imagine that the current ‘anti-woke’ incumbent, Kemi Badenoch, or her predecessor Nadhim Zahawi, could concoct such a wide-ranging and practical act or policy. It would surely be foolhardy to repeal or even bypass it. Yet that is exactly what has happened.

Ducking the duty.

The impact assessment concentrates on the relevant protected characteristics”, identified in the  ‘Equality Act 2010’, as disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. However, the Equality Act is up front on two duties for public bodies.

Firstly, family background or where a person is born (Part one, the Socio-economic Duty).

Secondly, treating people from different groups fairly and equally (Part two, the Equality Duty). 

The public sector duty in part one regarding socio-economic inequalities covers many areas and states, “An authority to which this section applies must, when making decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, have due regard to the desirability of exercising them in a way that is designed to reduce the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage”.

But it is part one that the government has steadfastly ducked since 2010. It is a deliberate policy that is designed to travel in exactly the opposite direction and foster more inequality.

Inertia stalls progress.

The incoming minister in 2010, Theresa May, immediately set out to scrap the socioeconomic duty, and this attitude has persisted throughout the conservative regime. By 2021 it still had not been enacted across Britain and worsened inequalities as the pandemic progressed. The act did not apply in Northern Ireland because of the complex anti-discrimination legislation that already existed.  But the idea was already gaining traction outside of England when Scotland applied the Fairer Scotland Duty in 2018 and Wales similarly in 2021 . The ongoing campaign of the Equality Trust must renew its momentum.

The perverse impact of inflation.

The government appears to be ignoring this despite being fully aware of the evidence. The ‘Parent, pupil and learner panel omnibus surveys for 2021 to 2022’, cited in the DfE’s equality analysis, provide a shocking insight into the government inertia in England. These report the findings from regular surveys with school pupil’s parents or carers, secondary school pupils, and 16 to 18 learners.

The conclusions released in December 2022 were stark for last May. This was before the bulk of the inflation rises were realised. Then, the “most common impacts reported by pupils and learners were that they needed to start or look for paid work (40%) and that they skipped meals while at school/college (31%). More than one in ten pupils and learners said that they could not get all the books or equipment needed (15%), could not go on a school trip that was not part of lessons (13%), could not get transport to school/college (12%) or attended school/college less frequently (11%)”.

This is not what should be expected for the ideal of ‘equality’. The government’s approach is certainly not based upon a blueprint for achieving equality. It is travelling in the other direction and is deliberately engineering an unequal society.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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