Students aren't all superhuman – that's why means-tested grants must return

Associate professor in journalism, Wendy Sloane's letter to the Editor of the Guardian.

Date: 16 June 2024

I’ve taught in higher education since 2010 and have known few students who haven’t had to take on paid work, often 20 hours weekly or more in low-paid retail or hospitality jobs (More than half of UK students working long hours in paid jobs, 13 June).

The lack of maintenance grants for less well-off students affects their livelihoods and education. It requires almost superhuman planning and fortitude to ensure that working long hours does not encroach on university life. One student got out of bed every weekday at 4.30am to spend four hours before class opening up a Pret – he graduated with a first. Another worked as a pub manager, often closing after midnight, yet managed to regularly attend class on time.

But many students are not superhuman – and are struggling. Universities nationwide have instituted on-campus food banks, which is no longer as shocking as it was just six months ago. I have helped those who are the hardest-hit get stipends from our hardship fund to pay their rent and eat.

Bringing back means-tested maintenance grants will allow students to focus more on learning instead of surviving. The Augar review in 2019 recommended that the least advantaged students get a £3,000 grant per year, which the Conservative government has ignored. The Sutton Trust has said the next government should “reintroduce maintenance grants for poorer students”, “increase the overall amount of maintenance” and “widen eligibility for support”. Keir Starmer mouthed words to that effect in 2023, but last month Labour insiders said the party would need “to see what it inherited from the Conservatives” before deciding, while the Greens say they would restore the grants.

Student grants were designed to provide “equality of access and educational opportunity for all, with no financial deterrents” (Dearing inquiry, 1997). We should continue to strive to achieve this.

Wendy Sloane
Associate professor in journalism, London Metropolitan University