31 March 2018
by Simon Marginson

We need universal maintenance grants to unlock student potential

Too many poorer students across Europe are unable to maximise their learning owing to inadequate financial support, argues Professor Simon Marginson in Times Higher Education.

Self-formation in education is not a new idea.

It has roots not only in Kant and von Humboldt, and C.P. Mead, Dewey and the American pragmatists, but also in Confucian self-cultivation, which in China goes back two-and-a-half thousand years.

But self-formation is not always understood in education policy, which focuses mostly on teaching excellence, not on agency in learning. Higher education as self-formation, however, means that students are not primarily other-determined.

They are reflexive, self-determining persons who use higher education to augment their selves and their potentials, so advancing their freedoms.

The idea of self-formation as freedom contains all we might want from higher education, all forms of enhancement: intellectual, cultural, social, economic, political and so on.

Higher education as self-formation rests on the irreducible fact that while learning is conditioned by external factors – by the learner’s background and resources, by teaching and learning materials, by the educational institution, by the map of opportunities and circumstances – only the learner does the actual learning.

But there is a catch. For students without family higher education background, the scope for building agency is often more restricted. The recent Eurostudent report into student life in Europe tell us that, on average, they have fewer hours of self-formation through immersion in knowledge and study, especially private study.

Because they have less money, and their parents have less money, they are more likely to be working longer hours.

They are more likely to be studying part-time, or located in non-university programmes where there is less scope for private study, and the knowledge is not always so empowering. They are less likely to go abroad, an activity which often triggers accelerated self-formation. They are more likely to be uncertain about being in higher education, less clear in their self-determination.

What policy conclusions can we draw from this? First, a universal student living allowance is the financial strategy, the economic move that creates, for students, the greatest potential.

It’s more useful than tuition-free education.

Living support not only reduces the impact of economic disadvantage, as free tuition does, it also does more than free tuition to build confidence, identity and a sense of belonging. It builds agency.

For example, we know from the recent Eurostudent data that students who live independently are more likely to feel that they belong in higher education.

A package of (a) income-contingent tuition fees, so you pay back later, when you are working full-time, and (b) universal grants sufficient for independent life, is significantly better for students than the combination of free tuition plus negligible grants-based living support, as in some European countries now.

Free tuition plus student grants is a better package than either. It is more achievable in some societies than others.

Second, students who do not have a higher education family background need specific institutional support, often in collective student settings, especially in the first year of their programmes.

Third, we need to be hard-headed about the social structural factors that not only stratify access and completion but stratify the scope for agency, self-formation and freedom.

We will never achieve pure distributive justice within higher education, pure equality of all social groups in access and completion, in all kinds of institutions, within societies that are manifestly unequal. However, we can come closer to the ideal.

The goal of a socially representative higher education system is an important measuring stick.

Providing we do not make it the only measuring stick. There are other forms of inequality, and goals other than those that implement greater equality.

More socially and politically significant than the inequalities between higher education background and non-higher education background students, within universities, are the inequalities between graduates and those who have never participated in higher education at all.

We need to find ways of better bridging the gulf between those two groups. Populism is building a base among the less educated and fostering resentment of the educated. To close that gap requires more kinds of social inclusion than just educational inclusion.

Higher education in itself cannot make societies more equal. Too much is often expected of it in that regard. However, it can and should make itself more equal, and in that manner contribute to building more equal, respectful, inclusive and solidaristic societies.