Do university tuition fees deter the poorest?

The issue of tuition fees exploded into the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth, when Nick Clegg appeared to suggest he was rowing-back on the party’s long-established commitment to abolish them.

I’ll state clearly my position: I support tuition fees, and believe they are the only possible way of funding world-class higher education for UK students. As and when extra public money is available, I believe it would be much better invested in early years and adult education programmes if we are serious about combating the real causes of social inequality. I am equally clear that I’m in a small minority in the party, and that bulk of opinion is with our existing policy.

I noticed this article in today’s Independent, Universities finally open their doors to the poor. This shows that, over the past decade – and therefore since the introduction of tuition fees, and then top-up fees – the proportion of young adults reaching university from the poorest backgrounds has increased significantly:

A significant breakthrough has been made in reducing the class divide in university admissions, figures to be unveiled this month will show. A study of university admission patterns obtained by The Independent will reveal that the chances of a young person with a disadvantaged background gaining a university place has increased by more than a third in a decade.

In 1996, about 13.5 per cent of young adults from the poorest British households made it to university by age 19. That figure has reached 18.5 per cent. The findings, which will be published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), contradict the accepted wisdom that social mobility in Britain has at best stalled – and at worst decreased.

And what is the single biggest reason HEFCE attributes for this rise?

… the introduction of means-tested educational maintenance allowances of £30 a week to help pupils from the poorest families stay on at school or college to study for A-levels.

There are, it strikes me, two key points here.

First, that young people from poorer backgrounds are not automatically deterred from applying to university because of tuition fees (though the ability of universities to be able to offer financial aid – partly funded by tuition fees – is clearly an important factor in achieving this).

And, secondly, that scarce public funding is best targeted at young people before they reach university if they are ever to aspire to a higher education. At a time of recession, and with the public sector facing painful funding cuts, our party would do much more for the cause of social justice if it prioritised funding programmes which help those who are currently missing out on the opportunity to go to university because they give up on education before they get the necessary A-level grades.

A couple of years ago the party could just about argue that the country could afford to fund both: that tuition fees could be abolished, and we could (eg, through the pupil premium) also pour resources into early years education, the most crucial period in a child’s educational development. A lot has changed in the last couple of years. It worries me that Nick Clegg’s rather clumsy intervention – appearing to bounce the party into shedding a policy to which it is deeply attached – has made some people’s opposition to re-examining our tuition fees policy even more trenchant.

The truth is that tuition fees are not the decisive factor in preventing young people from going to university: the single, biggest reason they never make it is because they weren’t given the educational opportunities when it mattered most. And that’s what the party should focus on, and what a Lib Dem government should invest in as its top priority.

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  • David Heigham 15th Oct '09 - 7:45pm

    “And what is the single biggest reason HEFCE attribute for the rise?

    … the introduction of means-tested educational maintenance allowances of £30 a week to help pupils from the poorest families stay on at school or college to study for A-levels.”

    The real tragedy is that this was identified as the measure that was most likely to get more children from poor backgrounds into higher education back in the 1960s. Sucessive Labour and Tory governments would not touch it.

    As for tuition fees, they are just and fair in an abstract way; but a surtax on graduate incomes would be juster, fairer and avoid the unlucky graduates getting very badly stressed.

  • Obviously you are a heretic and must now be pursued by irate FPC members into the void of solitude 🙂

    More seriously:
    “believe they are the only possible way of funding world-class higher education for UK students.”

    Would be fine but how many degree courses for which people are paying their £3k fees currently provide a world-class higher education and how many are, in the words of one of my tutors providing Aldi degrees not Harrods degrees?

  • I’m with Hywel: as a student, I’d support tuition fees if they DID “fund a world-class higher education for UK students”, but there’s no evidence that they do, Oxbridge and the Russell Group provided a world-class higher education for free for many years, and your figures ignore the rising drop-out rate due to student debt accross the sector, something which is only going to get worse. There’s also little evidence, that, although it has been percieved to be an indicator for social mobility, that those graduates from poorer backgrounds are becoming any more socially mobile as a result of their degrees.

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 16th Oct '09 - 12:14am

    I agree that there is a case for `upping the anti’ on resourcing the early years of education at KS2,as suggested, to make certain that more children enter secondary schools, with adequate reading,writing and numeracy skills to compete with language and number.

    Nick Clegg has stated on many platforms that he is concerned about the problem of children living in the most deprived Wards,like mine for example, where due to poverty and ill health in families,when even children care for sick parents, children are disadvantaged at the critical time, when they ought to learn at the start of their schooling.

    This `poverty deficit’ would thereby be the target of the fairer application of funding, by giving all pupils a better chance from the `Pupil Premium’.

    The children due to place of birth ,then have to catch up with basic reading and writing competencies, so to stay up with the rest in big class rooms, until later, when the gap grows wider for too many and there is then no longer any fair choice possible, to enter higher education, with or without help, with tuition fees.

    However, I can say from local knowledge that some areas of the least off households can produce talented pupils and we have some of the best local nursery and primary schools with great esprit de corps and attainment levels at KS2 in many deprived areas.

    Children should and do succeed from any background but to do so is much harder and writing out detailed H/W and getting individual help and attention can be a roulette wheel, when many children give up too soon..

    I submit that children can succeed from any life environment with the right understanding and guidance. This is surely, what Shirley Williams sought to introduce, when she was an Education Minister, as stated in her excellent autobiography ?

    I do believe that `Tuition Fees’ is seen as a gold standard flagship L/D Policy that has been campaigned on over recent Elections and there is an expectation on its pronouncement by the Electorate and within the ranks of the enveloped faithful.

  • I think i agree with virtually every piece of analysis in this article, which is a first.

    People who support abolishing tuition fees seem to think their position is the most progressive and redistributive. In actual fact, it seems the least so. Why are they allowed to claim this mantle uncontested?

  • Gareth Epps 16th Oct '09 - 1:31am

    Sorry, Stephen, but this is hogwash and you know it. Merely another step in your campaign to overturn the overwhelming will of the party as expressed in Spring when they voted on it – and not something that an ivory (or architect-designed) place in St Anne’s College will give you any perspective on.

    No 16-18 year old is incentivised by the derisory and poorly-administered EMA. £30 per week is chicken-feed. A member of Reading’s Youth Cabinet in a debate this evening rightly contrasted this with the £600/wk one of her friends was earning.

    Now it may be that the headlong rush to reach Labour’s 50% target of 18-30s in higher education is partially attributed to this stat. Currently around 43% end up in higher education; the figure in 1997 was considerably less (rather more than your 5%). If dealing in percentages, I suspect the number of low educational attainers from better-off backgrounds have benefited substantially more than those from poorer educational backgrounds.

    The Pupil Premium will deliver significant benefits and help people break out of poverty. But to suggest Labour’s education policies have done so is the sort of spin that would make Peter Mandelson blush.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Oct '09 - 8:48am

    I’m with Stephen on this. University participation rates have gone up and up over the last 30 years, whilst the level of state support for the individual student has gone relentlessly down. The U.S., despite the crippling cost of university education there, has historically had far higher participation rates than the UK. The reason is simple: people aren’t stupid. They know that there are tremendous personal advantages, in particular economic advantages, to a university education, that make it worth paying for.

    The present system of support needs to be improved, as the levels of grant and loan are barely enough to pay for university-provided accommodation in many cases, but abolishing fees and loans would be a retrograde step and I’ve never been happy about that part of our policy. (I know it’s popular with students, but remember – they’re actually at university. They haven’t been deterred by the existence of fees; they’d just rather not have to pay them.)

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Oct '09 - 8:55am

    “give those who cannot afford upfront fees the option of paying for their education through a PAYE tax”

    But that is in effect what happens now! You get a loan to pay the fees, the loan doesn’t become repayable until you’re earning over a certain threshold (£15,000, I think), at which point you pay 9% of the amount by which your income exceeds the threshold, until such time as you’ve paid it off. I think it’s collected through PAYE, but I’m not sure. It’s partly a question of packaging. Labour could have spun their system as a form of graduate tax and got a lot less flak as a result.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Oct '09 - 9:33am

    My experience as a university lecturer is that the introduction of tuition fees has pushed many students, particularly from less well-off backgrounds, into doing extensive part-time work. It is impossible to teach in the way we used to, which is to assume outside their contact hours the students would put in large amounts of self-study. The tendency now is for them to look at their timetable, and then book their shifts working at McDonalds or on the till at Sainsbury’s or whatever around it. This becomes obvious if for any reason one needs to book something at a different time from he timetabled lectures and labs – there’s massive complaints from students “Oh, we’re doing our jobs then – we thought it was free time”. The consequence is obviously that what they can be taught is reduced.

    Another point, which is almost never raised in these discussions, is that the universities, particularly the more prestigious ones, want more money to do more research, not to improve their teaching. The international prestige of a university depends almost entirely on its research record. The government has in addition set up a funding mechanism for UK universities which essentially says “put as little effort as you can into teaching – it counts for nothing”. Some may say the introduction of variable tuition fees could help that, as students would pick and choose and be willing to pay more for those universities which put effort into teaching. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work like that. No student ever says “I’ll go to university Y rather than university X, because although university X is more prestigious, university Y has better teaching”. I can assure anyone of this – most students make their university choices on a very superficial level, the dominant factor being to choose whichever is the highest in the league tables that will admit them, and the league tables are essentially ordered by research success.

    University admissions is very much a market, but with fixed rate tuition fees the currency is A-levels not pounds. However, every university department wants to get the brightest students it can, so it works very well as a competitive mechanism. After all, bright students can teach themselves, so you can just give them a few notes to keep them happy and go off and do your research. Students with weak entrance qualifications tend to be much more hard work for much less reward, no-one wants students like that, unless they have to in order to fill their places. Universities are very, very focussed on getting high-grade students, and the competition for them is cut-throat. Anyone who tells you tuition fees are needed to bring in a competitive attitude that is lacking at present is demonstrating a compete and utter cluelessness about how UK universities work.

    The market works in a bit of a strange way, however. The customers tend to think the higher the cost, the better the product. So there is no benefit in cutting your costs, it dos not bring in more customers and certainly not better ones. To some extent, the students are right here – you get a better education if your fellow students are high grade, so long as you’re not so below them you’re lost in picking up the material they can cope with. It would be interesting to see whether variable tuition fees would also work in this way – put up costs to attract customers. It’s like fashion products – you can get away selling crap at high prices so long as you don’t sell so much of it and all such crap that the brand name gets damaged. Obviously, an economy brand cannot get away with charging high prices, so it has a different marketing mechanism.

    Given that the value of the brand depends to quite a high extent on its exclusiveness, the idea that good universities will expand to attract more students is doubtful. Expanding means they would have to take on weaker students, means their brand would be damaged.

    I suppose this is Free Market II or maybe even Free Market III, which is why so many of our juvenile “libertarians” who are still on Free Market I, don’t get it.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Oct '09 - 5:14pm

    I think the £40,000 for every 18-year-old is a cracking idea. It’s real “blue-sky thinking” (though I feel I’ve seen something similar somewhere) – and like most such has an obvious practical problem, in the form of cost: about £25billion, I think. Personally, I’d have no problems with a decent wealth tax (and swingeing inheritance tax, if only it weren’t so avoidable) to pay for it, but it’s hardly the climate for it now, is it?

  • “Simply give every 18-year-old £40,000 (or whatever the price of a university education is these days) and allow them to spend it on what they like. They could buy a university education, if they thought that would be beneficial to them, or fund a gap year or two (which can be learning experiences too), or put down a deposit on a house.”

    I think you’d probably have to legalise drugs and tax them.

  • I’m surprised to find myself disagreeing strongly with Gareth Epps. The £30 a week maintenance allowance is not at all trivial if you are unfortunate enough to come from a family that is surviving on benefits. My grand-daughter is in that situation, and having pretty well opted out of education for two years she went back to college last year encouraged by the EMA and ended the year with 6 GCSEs. I am dismayed that the Party should oppose this scheme, though I agree that it is not well administered.

  • YorkLiberal may well be right to say that many kids who received EMA spend it on fags or a night on the town – isn’t that what their better off colleagues are doing with their money? Being Daily Mailish about what the kids of parents on benefits spend the EMA on completely misses the point: these are kids who are choosing to be in further education and are therefore creating the opportunity for themselves to get qualifications which have the potential to lift them out of the poverty they have suffered. That seems a thoroughly Liberal aspiration.

    On the subject of student fees: I come from the same generation as most members of the Cabinet: they, and I, received full grants if they came from a family with a modest income. I came away from university with a small amount of money in the bank. Whatever the reasons – the huge expansion in student numbers; the unwillingness of governments to contemplate the levels of tax that were levied on incomes in the 1960s – I find it sickening that people who benefited from a free education should prevent their children and grandchildren from enjoying the same benefit and are instead prepared to send them into adult life burdened with debts that will hang over them like a mortgage for much of the rest of their working lives.

  • Malcolm Todd 17th Oct '09 - 12:06pm

    tony hill para 1: spot on! The point of the EMA is to get kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to stay in school/college. They’re more likely to do that if they get money than if they don’t and more likely to do so if they are given the money to spend how they like than if they’re given vouchers or any such paternalistic tosh.

    tony hill para 2: no. I hear this argument a lot, and I understand the reasoning and the anger behind it, but it’s essentially a sclerotic argument. To present a counterexample, would you oppose a substantial increase in state pensions on the grounds that current pensioners didn’t pay for similar pensions for the previous generation 25 years ago? Progress can’t simply be about looking back at what a present generation did/got/gave a generation ago. (For the record, I went to university in the middle period: I didn’t get anything like the massive benefits of those like my wife who went in the 1980s or before, but don’t have anything like the student loan debt that my son will finish with. I neither resent the earlier students nor feel guilty about the ‘burdens’ of the later ones: times and circumstances change.)

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