Thursday, 14 February 2008

Are tuition fees deterring poorer students?

Today's Guardian proclaims that "Tuition fees favour the rich" and that children from poor families say fear of debt is deterring them from university. But is this really true? The Guardian's headline is their interpretation of research from Staffordshire University for the Sutton Trust, which found that
  • a majority of students (59%) who had decided not to pursue study in higher education reported that avoiding debt had affected their decision ‘much’ or ‘very much’.
  • more than half (56%) of all the students surveyed who were thinking of going into higher education were considering a local university because of the financial implications.
  • most students understood bursaries, but only 30% had actively searched for information on financial support. Almost half (45%) did not know whether they were eligible or not. Had they known that they were eligible for a bursary of £2,000 nearly 85% of those from low income homes said it would have encouraged them to apply.

The Staffordshire survey drew from 20 schools, and its main conclusions are more nuanced than the Guardian's interpretation suggests. First, a lot of students go to local universities instead of one far away from home. If students are deterred from going to a Russell Group university, such as Oxford or Cambridge, then this is a concern. But if a student is opting for a similar course at a local university to one they might otherwise have chosen 200 miles away, then this is simply following the pattern of most students in most countries of the world, and it is hard to see why this should be of concern (in case you ask, I cycled five miles to my local university as a student).

Second, it would seem that ignorance of bursaries rather than tuition fees is what deters potential students: the universities have simply not publicised their bursaries well enough, and the sector collectively has done far too little too. Recent reports from the Office for Fair Access showing that many bursaries went unclaimed even by those who were already at university confirm this.

The research deals with those who haven't applied to university for whatever reason. But, if the Guardian's thesis is correct, this would presumably be reflected in the application figures. As it happens, and the Guardian acknowledges this in its penultimate paragraph, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service UCAS published its latest application figures today.

They showed a 7% increase in applications to university compared with this time last year (or a 10% increase in English students applying to English universities). And they found the increase to be higher among the poorest students: nationally, data on the socio-economic background of all UK applicants aged 18 years and under shows that 29.6% were from the lower groups (4 to 7) in 2008, compared to 28.9% in 2007. This is not surprising, as the evidence of the first introduction of tuition fees was that there was an increase, albeit small, in the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups.

The issue is, then, not whether tuition fees 'deter' students who were not applying in greater numbers before they were introduced, but how to encourage more disadvantaged students (a) to gain the necessary qualifications and (b) to consider higher education. That is the Sutton Trust's main point - and there is a particular issue about students being sufficiently ambitious in the university to which they apply - and how we ensure that students access all the financial support and bursaries to which they are entitled. It is not about declaring class war on fees.

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