The Packhorse Generation – MPs protest in vain

Iona Bain


This afternoon the House of Commons voted on a Labour motion calling on the government to reverse its decision to end maintenance grants for students. The government has chosen to replace the grants with a loan system. The motion was voted down by 306 votes to 292.

This was a narrow victory, considering that Scottish MPs couldn’t vote on this English issue as the Scottish students have a different system. Also Welsh students will maintain their rights to grants.

English students studying in England, Scotland or Wales, however, will still lose means-tested maintenance grants, which will be replaced by loans.

The motion was brought by Labour because it was felt that the government was trying to bring in this change without a vote or indeed even a debate.

Half a million of the poorest students will be impacted by the change. Opposition parties challenged the government that they had not signalled this policy in their election manifesto.

It comes on the back of the ending of student scholarships, and the raising of the £21,000 income threshold for beginning to pay back loans. That was brought in without consultation with the education sector, amid widespread unease that it opened the door to loans being changed retrospectively, after they have been agreed and signed.

Kevin Brennan, the shadow minister for business innovation and skills,   called the move “an opportunity tax”. He said it was mean in spirit, underhand in execution, and tragic in its long-term consequences.

YMoneyY last week highlighted the unfortunate consequences of ending the bursary arrangements for student nurses, and putting them onto loans instead.

Emma Reynolds MP (Lab, Wolverhampton NE) said that the social contract between young people and the state had been broken.  It was pointed out that the poorest students would now end up leaving university after three years with  £53,000 of debt.  Indeed it was also noted that the BMA warns that medical students  will graduate with a staggering £100,000 of debt.

These are the same young people who face rising rents, rising house prices, and an uncertain pensions future.  Young families could face having to bring up two children while having to pay back two student loans.   This is the true picture of inter-generational unfairness facing what Emma Reynolds called ‘The Packhorse Generation’.

Nick Boles, the education minister, stood up to defend the change and muttered that the NUS was the national union of shroud-wavers – for which he was reprimanded by Eleanor Laing the deputy speaker.

When we went on street demonstrations in the early 2000s, against the introduction of top-up fees, we knew it would lead to this.  The fear now is: how much worse can it get?

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