Corbyn condemns Conservatives over cost-of-living crisis for London’s students

5 Mins read

The former Labour leader says there is a solution for students whose costs threaten their academic failure — but the Tories aren’t pursuing it.

In September 2023, The National Union of Students reported that the 2.8% increase in maintenance loans this academic year will leave students more than £1,500 worse off than they would have been if student finance was tied to inflation.

Students in the capital are feeling the squeeze more than students in any other city. In a survey conducted by Students’ Unions at Russell Group universities, one in five London students reported that they had been forced to increase their working hours or even take up a second job, and 68% disclosed that they can’t afford course material.

These harrowing statistics reflect the dire situation faced by students across the nation, particularly in London. Despite the crying necessity for financial support for students, the Government’s Cost of Living Payment scheme for 2023 to 2024, designed to tackle the threat of increased poverty nationwide, wholly overlooks those in higher education.

“…if the current government doesn’t step up, we could be facing a financial crisis that will last for years to come.”

Jeremy Corbyn

Ongoing negligence from Rishi Sunak’s government leads us to look elsewhere for solutions. I headed to the Islington People’s Rights Annual General Meeting — where the focus was the cost of living — to talk with guest speaker and long-time comrade of fee-paying university students, Jeremy Corbyn.

After a carefully minuted, cautiously objective and relatively benign presentation of the Islington People’s Rights work over the year of 2022, and a handful of short talks from other guest speakers, Jeremy Corbyn emerged from the audience to address the assembly.

Unlike the other guests, all of whom had sat on the panel for the duration of the meeting, Corbyn had been seated amongst the attendees and arose only then to give his annual talk at the meeting.

It could only be assumed that he had positioned himself amongst the rest of the event’s attendees as to divert attention from his celebrity status and back on to the business of the meeting, a courteous act that generated a sense of irony – his attempt at subtlety only emphasised his public caricature: Jeremy Corbyn, Man of the People. Nonetheless, I was charmed.

In a talk that began in a similar, perhaps more invigorated, tone than the rest of the analytical meeting, Corbyn reflected on the work of the trust. He applauded, with fond recollection, the decades of dedication that his colleagues had shown to the borough — all without mention of his own achievement of 40 years of unwavering service as MP for Islington North as of June 2023.

After acknowledging the work of the organisation over the past year, Corbyn looked to future; he warned, with unfaltering certainty, that “going into 2024, we can expect the cost-of-living crisis to worsen, if the current government doesn’t step up, we could be facing a financial crisis that will last for years to come.”

Corbyn addressing Islington Rights Annual General Meeting 2023
Jeremy Corbyn MP (Left) at the Islington People’s Rights Annual General Meeting 2023 [Islington People’s Rights]

Following his talk, Corbyn took questions from the audience. First to the mark, I asked what could be done to ensure that students in London have access to affordable housing.

Corbyn responded: “I’m sure that you’re aware of my view that fees for higher education should be abolished. I also believe that students should be offered enough funding to afford their rent. In terms of student accommodation provided by universities, in many cases, universities have commissioned private companies to build accommodation for their students and this has lead to extortionate rent prices for many students.”

The pragmatic politician offered a solution: “the council needs to put in place stricter building restrictions to stop builders from developing housing that is unaffordable, but this is a long process that is often not a priority as we have seen from our current government. The Conservatives have ignored this issue time and time again and it is not something that I think we will see change whilst they remain in power.”

A quick google search into the Conservatives’ work towards this issue affirms Corbyn’s statement. Unsurprisingly, there has been a lack of public discourse from the government on this issue.

However, in a 2018 report conducted by an independent panel operating in The House of Commons, The Augar Report, it was recommended that the government should consider working with Higher Education Institutions to “improve transparency around rent models and profit levels for student accommodation.”

In the government’s 2019 manifesto, a singular response was made: “We will look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students.”

This negligent response wholly ignored the suggestions made by the independent panel, with the government failing to recognise the need to make public the harmful, profiteering rental operations of many student accommodation companies.

Their promise of “reducing the burden of debt on students” (which was conveniently completely unrelated to the findings of the report) was not only broken, but completely reversed in April 2022, when they imposed a freeze on the minimum salary that post-graduates must earn before they are required to start paying back their student loans. This freeze has meant that more graduates will have to repay their loans sooner, only worsening financial struggles.

“Rishi Sunak and his government are not making sufficient adjustments to any current benefit legislation to help the most vulnerable people through this crisis.”

Jeremy Corbyn

As Corbyn continued, his disapproval of Rishi Sunak’s government was more than tangible, it was infectious. Looking around the humble conference hall, the faces that, only moments ago, had been washed with indifference were now enthralled by the expressive, freely-spoken politician.

Another attendee posed a political question for the passionate speaker: “What would you say to the Prime Minister about the current Cost-of-Living Crisis?”

“Rishi Sunak and his government are not making sufficient adjustments to any current benefit legislation to help the most vulnerable people through this crisis. There is a complete lack of control over the private rental sector, The Local Housing Allowance still sits at the lowest 30th percentile which, in most parts of the country, is insufficient,” Corbyn said.

“As the cost of living increases, this must be increased. Another issue is that rent caps are not being adjusted in-line with the current rate of inflation and, in this area, we are seeing more and more renters turning to the Islington People’s Rights Centre with bills that they can’t afford.”

Mr Corbyn’s train of thought diverted his attention back to my own question regarding student housing: “For students receiving a maintenance loan that is calculated in the spring to be spent across the next academic year, a soar in rent prices is crippling and rent caps must be tightened.”

Statistics prove Mr Corbyn’s evaluation to be correct. In a survey conducted in February 2023 by Save The Student, it was found that 63% of students surveyed consistently struggled to pay rent, an increase of 10% from the previous year. Furthermore, two in five reported that they had considered dropping out of university due to financial worries.

As the cost of living continues to spiral, we can only expect these numbers to increase and, potentially, translate into a generation of university drop-outs, a prospect that threatens further financial decline.

Countless more members of the audience out-stretched their arms to converse with Mr Corbyn, each of them being heard, none leaving without an answer. Some had met him before, and for many, he remembered their strife.

As the last hand fell, the former Labour MP took his leave with more business to attend to – moving onto another charitable event. Just like that, the left-wing firebrand departed, the chair of the meeting declared the itinerary complete and the attendees dispersed.

Exiting the meeting, the feeling was bittersweet; Corbyn had instilled a sense of urgency and, yet, what could be done? He had given us the building blocks, but the instruction manual was missing. How can students call for change when their demands fall on the Government’s deaf ears?

They can do this by signing the following petitions that endeavour to bring the issues that students face to the House of Commons where, once again, MPs can continue to fight this injustice.

Featured image by Tim Gouw via Unsplash CC.

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