Friday 23 August 2019

Student spin

Ministers are being extremely creative about selling their plans to scrap student grants, says Robin Pascoe.

Oh the spin! The government decides to abolish student grants but says ‘everyone will benefit’, and then quickly renames student loans as the much more positive sounding ‘education advances’.

Last week came the long-awaited breakthrough on the government’s wish to stop the student grant – currently around €270 for a student who lives away from home. Only children from very low income families will continue to get a grant to go to college or university.

The reason, says the government, is to generate €1bn in savings. This money will, education minister Jet Bussemaker assures us, be ploughed back into education. And this means, she has said in every interview given so far, that everyone will benefit.

Nothing so far indicates this extra investment in education is set in stone, so there are no guarantees. It is, after all, easy to pledge to improve educational standards but not quite so easy to actually achieve measurable results.

New name

That aside, the blatant cynicism of renaming the student loan system an ‘educational advance’ shows the government is well aware how unpopular this measure will be. Let us see how many times ministers and coalition MPs can use the word studievoorschot over the next few weeks until it has seeped into the language.

The government worked out the deal together with the D66 Liberals and the left-wing greens GroenLinks because it needs opposition support to get the legislation through the upper house of parliament.

Quite why these parties have agreed to the move is anyone’s guess. But both have been putting on the positive spin as well. Not only will higher education be ‘improved’ but thanks to GroenLinks, children from poor families will still get the grant after all.

Bussemaker’s argument for abolishing grants is that university graduates go on to earn higher salaries than the ordinary man. It is wrong, she says, that everyone is subsidising these high flyers.

Smaller debts

But is this not likely to be the case with students from low income families? Do they get a degree and then work in the Hema or something? Otherwise why should they be blessed with smaller debts?

And if, as Bussemaker also says, experience shows that abolishing grants has no impact on students from poorer families’ enthusiasm about going to university, why has she agreed to give them a €3,000 a year advantage over their peers?

Yes, €3,000 a year is what abolishing the grant will mean to the student who no longer lives with his or her parents. That is less than one quarter of a minister’s monthly salary but an awful lot of shifts in the local café if you decide to earn it, rather than borrow.

Interesting calculation

Mistress of spin Bussemaker says she estimates the abolition will only add €6,000 to the average student debt – which is an interesting calculation considering we are talking about €3,000 a year and at least a three-year bachelor and one-year master’s degree.

No student wants to build up debts but the average debt is now about €15,000. Abolishing grants is set to boost that to €27,000. It is a nice start to your working life – owing €27,000 to the government, not to mention the impact on your ability to get a mortgage.

Bussemaker, according to her parliamentary cv, took seven years to get a degree in politics from the University of Amsterdam. D66 leader Alexander Pechtold graduated in history of art and archaeology in 1996, 11 years after leaving high school. And GroenLinks’ Bram van Oijk says in his biography he began studying development economics in the early 1970s, but does not list a job in his cv until 1990.

Of course, student loans existed back then. Without a basic grant, Bussemaker would have been an extra €21,000 in debt, and goodness knows how much Pechtold and Van Oijk would have owed the state.

Luckily for them, they were students in the days when you could take as long as you liked to get your degree, doing a part-time job to keep your debts under control. Something they seem to have conveniently forgotten in all the spin.

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