|Issue 11 - March 1973|
|Taken For Granted|
The New Local Authority Con Trick
Education authorities in the north-east are busy approving a new system of grants for students staying on at school over the school leaving age. The new scheme is recommended by the north-east Council of Education Committees for all local authorities in the area.
THESE NEW SO CALLED 'MAINTENANCE ALLOWANCES' MUST BE UNIQUE IN THE HISTORY OF THE WELFARE SERVICES IN THAT, AT A TIME OF RISING COSTS AND A GROWING RECOGNITION OF THE RIGHT TO HIGHER GRANTS, THE NEW SCALE OF ALLOWANCES EFFECTIVELY CUTS THE ACTUAL CASH AMOUNTS OFFERED TO FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN STAYING ON AT SCHOOL OR COLLEGE.
First the new scheme will award grants only to students of 16 plus in place of the existing scheme operating from 15 plus. A student staying on to take 'O' levels, or CSE, will not now be eligible for a grant. A student staying on to take 'A' levels will be eligible for only two years of grants instead of the existing 3 years of grants. A full year's grant has been wiped off the income of any family who managed to qualify for a maintenance allowance.
But the new scheme is so mean that few families will manage to qualify for a grant anyway - and the larger the family the less likely are they to qualify. Most families on social security will have an income too high to qualify!
According to the north-east councils of education committees' own miserable estimates it takes £41 a year over the current social security level of payments to keep a student at school over the age of 16.
But the scale they propose offers unemployed parents with 2 children (one of 16 and one or 13-15 and receiving social security benefits of £18.10 a week) a grant of only £27 a year to keep the 16 year old at school - i.e. £9 a term!
For unemployed parent with 3 children, receiving social security benefit of £21.50 a week - the grant offered is NIL!
Further the new scales ignore the fact that social security benefit will be increased in the autumn, so that the few families that do qualify for a grant now will be priced out of the scale by the new benefits.
In the autumn a family with 2 children will receive benefit too high for them to qualify for a grant.
In order for a family to qualify for a grant under the new scales they would have to be living below the official starvation level - i.e. to qualify for the payment of SS supplementary benefits - but NOT to claim them.
The north-east council in recommending the new scales to local authorities are proud of their cunning in making the scales even more mean than they seem. They admit that no allowance is made for the raising of the school leaving age to 16 and boast that:
"It is also worth noting that the DHSS (Supplementary) Benefits will be increased again in April or May 1973 if recent procedure is continued, and this will reduce the amount the authorities will have to pay if they accept the above scheme."
And even further, when means-testing the family income for the purposes of calculating any grant, regard is to be taken of any exceptional or special needs allowance awarded by social security. Thus, the education grant will be reduced if any member of the family is in receipt of:
"sick pay ... family allowance ... workmen's compensation, disability and civilian injury pensions ... maternity allowance ... constant attendance allowance (for the chronically bedridden) ... and allowances paid to blind or tubercular persons ..."
Thus, for those families, any meagre grant they may have obtained will be reduced in the event of any family infirmity or adversity.
Any family with the father working will be quite unable to qualify for any grant - no matter now poor his wage, because the operation of the family income supplement will put them well outside the scale of allowances.
These new scales which are now in the process of being accepted by most north-east local authorities are not only unjust they are inhuman. They represent a public insult to thousands of working class families trying to survive on social security. They reveal the insensitivity and indifference of local councils who parade their concern for helping poor families to keep their kids at school but who in reality offer an insulting scale of grants designed to operate below the official starvation level.
The South Shields education authority which has just decided to accept the new scale with minor modifications, is typical of this hypocrisy. Last summer the Education Committee shed hysterical tears because, they claimed, the South Shields Trades Union Council's leaflet, 'A School Leaver's Guide To Survival', which explained what social security benefits were available to school leavers, would entice students away from school. Now that the committee have the opportunity to take action to encourage students to stay on they have decided instead to add to the financial inducement for them to leave by cutting their grants.
This is the sort of hypocrisy which brings local politicians and local government into public ridicule and disrepute. It is the inevitable consequence of a system of local government which allows our local councillors to live in a fantasy world of statistics created by the official bureaucrats remote from working class realities.
There is now an incontestable social case for ALL students, at school or at college, between the ages of 16 to 19 to receive a grant at least equal to that which they would receive were they to leave education and stand idly on the street corner on the dole.
The speeds with which grants will be brought up to this social security level will depend on how effectively students can organise themselves to take action in support of this demand NOW.
Note: the new recommended scheme was accepted by South Shields Education Committee on 26 February.
Discretion Is .....?
For the past few months the National Union of Students has been strenuously campaigning for a better deal in student grants. This is hardly surprising when you take a look at the grants system and the way it works, as in most cases it is mean and sometimes ruthlessly barbaric especially to the poorer student often from a working class background.
Probably the biggest injustice in the system is that not every student receives a grant. Undergraduates, student teachers and similar advanced students are automatically given one, but students on 'non-advanced' courses such as OND, ONC, O and A levels only receive a grant at the discretion of the local authority.
Those who do receive a discretionary grant (and many don't, leaving them to pay their own way through college) find that they differ throughout the country, ranging from about £400 to £130 per annum but never reaching that maximum student grant of £445. So if a student happens to live in an area where the local authority are either tight or hard up he could find himself up to £200 a year out of pocket.
Gateshead give their 'non-advanced' students living at home £200 per annum (£4 a week), £285 (£5.50 a week) to those studying elsewhere and £320 (£6 a week) to those studying in London. The extreme meanness of Gateshead Education Committee compels a student to be financially dependent on parents, many of whom just can't afford this burden so forcing the student to either give up the idea of further education or do without many of the necessities at college. When the chairman of Gateshead Education Committe3e, Alderman Chris Wheatley was asked about being mean in respect to student grants, he said, "We are on the generous side if anything", I wonder if he'd let any of his kids live in London on £6 a week? Probably not. But most likely he's got enough money to subsidise their way through college whereas a lot of poorer families just couldn't afford to do this, thus restricting higher education to the rich.
Another section of students hard hit by the grants system are married women. If their husbands are working the maximum grant they can receive is £275 per annum and this is subject to a means test on her parents .. Imagine. This puts her in the predicament of being dependent on both her parents and her husband and incurring all the accompanying hardships.
The NUS also want the abolition of the means test which vets students' parents and requires them to pay 10% of what they can earn above £1,100 per annum towards their kids' grants. Here again the student is financially dependent on parents.
Because of inflation the maximum grant for 'advanced' students of £445 per annum which was set back in 1968 has been continually eroded away, until now it is estimated that to bring it back to the level it had in '68 an increase of £100 is necessary before Sept '73. And because of continuing inflation the NUS wants a 'price index', to be introduced to the grants system so that each year grants can be corrected to this 'real' value. An excellent idea and one that should apply to all fixed income groups such as pensioners and unemployed etc.
The heart of the recent NUS campaign has been to introduce new policies to deal with the inconsistencies in the present system. Enforcing their point, rent strikes in 44 colleges and effective refectory boycotts in numerous other colleges have taken place and a national strike of all students with protest marches through major towns was planned for Feb 21, meeting behind the Central Station. About 5,000 students turned up for the march through Newcastle early on a cold Wednesday morning. The mood was good and everyone seemed happy, chatting away or watching the continual fashion show. A flock of what seemed like hundreds of street sellers flogging every conceivable brand of heavy political press descended upon us and proceeded to enlighten anyone with half an ear to listen. But the sight of hundreds of identically printed banners being distributed from the back of a Union bus took a little of the validity of the march away for me. After all here we were, campaigning for more money and someone's just spent a small fortune on these banners. Like saying you're against pollution and go working for Coca Cola ... but.
It took about half an hour of singing, chanting, handing out leaflets, photo clicking, screaming, calling Ted and Margaret all the names under the sun, traffic disrupting through the streets of Newcastle before we all pulled into the courtyard of the University Union Building.
Speeches followed and Digby Jacks, NUS president, warned us that the Tory government was trying to make higher education 'the preserve of the wealthy' and that the idea of giving students loans instead of grants was as much a disincentive to the working class people as the present means test.
After this there were several other speakers then Mr Roland Boyde, MP and Labour party spokesman on higher education told us that his party both recognised and supported the need for better grants, and suggested that 16-18 year olds should also receive a grant. Hope he remembers all this when he gets into office, more than likely he'll have an attack of amnesia just like his mates.
The next speaker not only showed us the light at the end of the passage but gave us the key to unlock the door, 'Join up with the workers', the TGWU representatives pleaded. To me that's the only way the students can win the fight for better grants, after all, students can go and strike forever and the only people affected would be the students themselves, but with co-operation of the workers who hold the economic power of the country the story would be different. But how can students get the support of the workers when they won't even support their brother workers? The gas men are a case in point.
The gathering split up (just in time for dinner) and at the invitation of the last speaker several hundred of us popped over the road to the Civic Centre to see the Director of Education.
But by the time we got there the crowd had lost its impetus and leadership and what followed was a half-hearted attempt at a sit-in. We all dispersed and went our separate ways.
Technical college students have always (and in every sense of the phrase) been regarded as second class students. Less money is allocated to Techs so they naturally do not have the resources of universities or colleges of education - and there is a reason for this.
Inevitably most university students are assimilated into the management structure of industry whilst the overwhelming majority of Tech students are destined to fill the roles that their parents have - they are fated to be on the shop floor for the rest of their natural lives (or unnatural lives depending on your viewpoint).
Naturally both governments and local education authorities want to spend more on university students both educationally and recreationally in order to lead them to believe they are something special. (In effect, these students are being bribed; they generally behave themselves when they leave college. Today's students are tomorrow's bourgeoisie, apart from the hoi polloi of the working class.)
It is not insignificant that the majority of university students are not raving left-wing militants; they traditionally come from the middle and upper classes and as students are in a privileged position in society: in effect they are little else but parasites. In return for a life of privilege they willingly work to preserve the status quo when they finish studying.
Society can, on the whole, allow these students to have political organisations, as, on the whole, within the university context there is very little chance of a mass change in consciousness amongst these middle class students: at best the majority turn out to be liberal socialists, liberals, or tories. The percentage of militants is very small and even among these quite a large number are mature, working class students with industrial experience.
On the other hand student unions (and in particular militant ones) are in the main stamped out in Techs. It is overtly dangerous to allow engineering apprentices to achieve any kind of left-wing consciousness; they might carry it back to their factories and cause real trouble.
Durham Tech students are privileged in that they do have a union which is active, has funds and its own offices. It is the only Tech in the area in this position. Within most Tech unions the Principal is president and controls the funds, the mail and the executive committee. The executive at Durham is in the fortunate position of having a free hand in running the union, the Principal being more libertarian than most.
The effect of this position is that the Tech union appears to have a greater degree of rank and file support than the university union (at a recent demo the Tech had 300 students supporting it, the university had 40) and is much more militant (half the committee are ex-workers).
Because it appears to be moving in a leftward direction (left of DSU - Durham University Union - certainly) there are naturally attempts to suppress it. These attempts come not from the majority of lecturers, but from a minority. In particular one particularly nasty and vicious art lecturer (a non-unionist himself) has on occasions directly threatened students, in particular young girls.
Yet it is not only some lecturers who object to unions within Techs. The Durham County Education Committee allows unions in Techs but makes damned sure they are underfinanced or not financed at all. Compare Durham Tech's five shillings per year per student fee, levied directly from the members, with DSU's £13 per year per student composition fee given to them from the LEAs. No wonder we can't give our members the social facilities they want. We must fight to achieve the same level of finance as the university students.
Discrimination also occurs in the area of academic freedom. All students at Tech are required to register twice a day at nine o'clock and 1.15 in order to qualify for grants, no matter whether they have any lectures that day or not. If you have the temerity to ask what you should do for the rest of the day you are told 'work in the library'. Being highly optimistic 100 students can use the library at once and maybe 20 can use the Union's own study room. The library facilities are lousy and I prefer to go either to the university library or go home. Yet this is technically wrong according to the rules.
The general attitude among lecturers is that Tech students are irresponsible, immature and not to be trusted with any form of academic freedom. What happens is that a form of self-fulfilling prophesy occurs: if lecturers refuse to trust students they react in an obvious way; they become untrustworthy and tell lies to cover up where they have been. This is not the students' fault: if people would trust us we would not break that trust. All we ask for is the same degree of academic freedom as university students.
Yet it does not end there even. The university students regard us as second class citizens. It's all very well for them to make friendly noises and mutter about it being 'policy' of DSU to integrate Tech students fully into DSU. If they really wanted this why haven't they done something about putting the policy into effect? The excuses given are both nauseating and endless. It can be suggested that the truth is that they are just plain scared. If we had equal representation on DSU we would have 15 voting reps, generally enough to swing votes on important issues. At the moment they can exclude us on the grounds of financial commitment: we just can't afford to give the amount of money the university students can.
Finally again on finance, the grant structure for Tech students is really discriminatory. Our grants are purely discretionary and much lower than university students'. The fact is that we are there to study: society becomes more technical and demands higher and higher qualifications and expects us to study for them. If society demands these qualifications then we demand a decent standard of living while we are studying for them.
But to end, the worm is turning, the starvelings are arising. In line with a general mood Tech students are beginning to see through the myth of capitalist society and are getting angry.
Not only the authorities but the middle class liberals in the universities must beware; the time will come when the boot will be (and not just metaphorically) on the other foot: Tech students are beginning to learn one great basic lesson: IF YOU DON'T HIT IT, IT WON'T FALL. We are now moving into a period of Tech where we will hit IT and THEM, bloody hard.
Bishop Auckland Technical College which has a fair proportion of female students makes no provision for one of the basic bodily functions of such students - the college does not possess a sanitary towel or tampon dispenser. Are the women who attend the college so well organised that they have no need of such a machine or don't they menstruate? Maybe they just don't do it in college hours!
The Registrar (a woman) was unaware of the absence of the machines; was concerned but is "unable to provide one until the next financial year". Meanwhile girls, keep a note of your dates and should you slip up - hard luck!