Why we’re marching for living grants on Pride

On Saturday 27 June, we’ll be marching on Pride in London with the trade unions and Lesbians & Gay Men Support the Miners – join us! All supporters are welcome regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Details here.

warwickBen Towse, UCL Defend Education & NUS Postgraduate Committee

The last government abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (which provided a small amount of financial assistance to poorer young students in further education), and now, the newly-elected Tory government may cut the maintenance grants of the poorest undergrads. Postgrad funding is a mess, with most Masters students completely reliant on private wealth and many PhD students self-funding too.

We don’t just want to stop and reverse these cuts, because those schemes were never enough. NCAFC demands a grant – not means-tested and non-repayable – that is enough for every student to live independently, from further education to postgrad. This is the only way to ensure that finances are not a barrier to anyone accessing and staying in education, and to make sure that every student has a decent standard of living.

How would we fund such an undertaking? There is a huge amount of money available for this and other public services – the only problem is that it is currently kept in the hands of a few. We say, tax the rich and take the banks under democratic control – the wealthy shouldn’t just pay for their own education, but everyone’s.

There are lots of arguments and facets to this issue. Here, I want to focus on the question of why we think this is a particular issue for LGBTQ people. Why are we raising this demand on the London Pride march, and why did NCAFC argue (successfully!) to convince NUS LGBT+ to stand for universal living grants?

It’s often said that we should be happy with means-tested financial support. That’s where the government decides how much support you need according to your parents’ incomes. First of all, the support provided now doesn’t cover full living expenses even for the neediest students, so even if we accepted that argument, much improvement would still be needed.

But means-testing assumes that parents will always financially support students if they can. But if an intolerant family won’t support an openly LGBTQ student, they can face a choice of living in poverty – because the government judges they don’t need full support even though they aren’t getting help from their family – or the pain of living in the closet, hiding their identities so that their families won’t cut them off.

Supposedly, students who can’t rely on such support can gain “estrangement” status from their parents and be funded as independent from their families. This is often used to argue against a need for universal grants – for instance, by the NUS Vice-President Welfare Colum McGuire when he argued against universal living grants at NUS Conference this year. But the estrangement system isn’t just broken, it is a one-size-fits-all approach that can never work.

To gain estrangement, the burden of proof is on students to prove that they have completely cut ties with their parents for some time. Evidence can be hard to find and the process is difficult and often deeply distressing. But it also assumes everyone’s whole family is either entirely supportive or completely estranged. How could we fix such a system? Will we means-test intolerance, with a sliding scale measuring how bigoted or supportive an applicant’s parents are?!

And none of this is any help to those who are in the closet, still living with intolerant families or even just keeping in touch: even unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation have been held against estrangement applicants. In this way, the system demands that young LGBTQ people struggling with their families, or even just individual family members, completely give up on their entire families and cut them out. A bitter irony, given the conservative moralising of the major political parties about the importance of the family unit.

And this isn’t just an issue for LGBTQ students. What about those whose families don’t disown them for their sexualities or gender identities, but just refuse to support their ambitions for education, for any number of reasons – from disagreeing with their offspring’s choices in life and career, to conservative patriarchal parents who don’t believe their daughters should be educated? Everyone deserves the ability to be financially independent without having to cut their entire family completely out of their lives.

We support universal living grants and other causes because we aren’t just fighting to hold off the particular attacks being made on public services now, by this government. We are fighting for a radically liberated, socially just society, in which everyone has the freedom to fulfil their hopes and potential, be who they want and live as they wish.

Join us this Saturday and let’s make Pride part of that fight!

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