The university access question: be careful what you wish for

At a Social Market Foundation fringe event on Monday, Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes claimed that the coalition came very close to scrapping tuition fees altogether in 2010 in favour of introducing a graduate contribution scheme.

Coming just days after Nick Clegg’s now infamous apology for the Liberal Democrats’ broken promise on tuition fees, it’s clear that – despite Clegg’s protestations  – party activists and politicians alike remain deeply uncomfortable with the decision to support a trebling of fees. But, if access to higher education for the most disadvantaged is their concern, evidence shows that Lib Dems actually have nothing to fear from the new fee regime. What’s more, research suggests that the party’s very act of opposing fees so publicly may have had a damaging impact on access.

Evidence shows that tuition fees – when a well-designed loans system is in place to help students pay – do not reduce the participation of suitably qualified school leavers from more deprived backgrounds. Despite tuition fees trebling in England in 2006, the participation rate of the most disadvantaged continued to rise in the long-run. In Canada, when university fees were liberalised in the early 1990s with no attendant increase in student loans, access suffered. Yet it bounced back once the student loans facility was expanded shortly thereafter.

Even the recent increase in fees to £9,000 had a really small impact on the participation of 18 years old from deprived backgrounds: a 0.1-0.2% fall compared to last year according to UCAS. In fact, the figures show that a higher proportion of young people from affluent backgrounds were put off than those from less well-off families. Longer-term trends will give a more accurate measure of the impact of the latest increase in fees, but it’s likely the Lib Dem’s anxiety about access may have been misplaced.

In addition, recent research from the LSE on the impact of negative messaging about fee increases suggests that the party’s opposition may actually harm access for the most disadvantaged. The LSE study asked students in Year 10 – when future decisions about education are being cemented –about their attitudes towards the affordability of Higher Education in 2010. One group was given comprehensive and clear information explaining how the student finance system worked, and the benignity of the student loans system. The other group was not: instead, they were just learning about HE policy through the media.

Before the information was distributed, nearly a quarter said “Going to university is too expensive for me and my family”. This decreased when the information was given but it increased substantially for those just exposed to the media reporting. Disturbingly, for those on free school meals just exposed to media reporting, there was an increase of 11.4 percentage points believing HE would be too expensive. Meanwhile, when those on free school meals were given accurate information, there likelihood of saying university is too expensive decreased by 10.4 percentage points.

Clearly, messages are very powerful. And the Lib Dem’s policy to scrap tuition fees perpetuated the myth that higher fees makes university unaffordable. But the reality is that with a student loan system, university remains free at the point of use.

The major barrier to attendance is poor educational results at school. In attempting to tackle this problem, the Lib Dems are heading in the right direction: improving access to childcare, extending the pupil premium and pledging more funding for intensive catch-up tuition are all strong policies that will help raise attainment. Let’s move on from the tuition fees debate and focus on what will really work for disadvantaged pupils.


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