Cut tuition fees and you shut the door to poor students | Anne-Marie Canning | Opinion


Last week, universities in England were preparing reports on how they have diversified their student populations. These reports will be submitted to the director of fair access at the Office for Students. My university, King’s College London, will report, happily, that our undergraduate intake is now 77% state school, more than 52% ethnic minority and has the fastest growing population of low-income students in the Russell Group.

And what has made all this progress and vital work possible? The very thing that many believe to be the enemy of educational opportunity – tuition fees.

When, in 2012, the coalition government introduced the then £9,000 fee regime, what’s little known is that it came with serious regulatory machinery to secure gains in access and participation. As a result, higher tuition fees have leveraged £800m into schemes and bursaries for poorer students.

The system, then, acts in a redistributive way. Alongside the poorest, its beneficiaries include refugees, forced migrants, care leavers and “estranged students” (those not supported by their parents). Thanks to the tuition fee regime, programmes designed to widen intake are now delivered at every single university. Education centres, homework clubs, tutoring by PhD students, summer schools and teacher training events are just some of the initiatives under way across the country.

It’s a shame that this work does not feature more in the debates the Augar review of post-18 education funding in England.

The 2016 Labour party manifesto proposed the abolition of tuition fees, while there are suggestions that the Augar review will recommend a significant reduction. Both proposals endanger vital widening participation resources and infrastructure. In fact, without compensatory safeguards, universities will have to dismantle programmes and initiatives, and dismiss staff who support students to fulfil their ambitions. The loss will be massive and will hurt a generation of young people and their communities.

In the past few decades, there has been a transformation in who gets to become a graduate. Now, more than one in three 18-year-olds are studying in higher education. Entry rates have increased in 95% of parliamentary constituencies since 2006. And perhaps, most hearteningly, in 2017 English pupils receiving free school meals were 83% more likely to go to university than they were in 2006.

However, this picture does vary by region. While in 2017 41.8% of 18-year-olds in London went to university, only 28.9% of the same population in the south-west and 30.3% in the north-east did. In terms of undergraduates from black and minority ethnic groups, the numbers rose by 38% between 2007-08 and 2015-16.

While widening participation is concerned with all university attendees, the fair access debate focuses on who gets to study at the most selective institutions. Here, progress has been much slower. Access to Oxbridge, for instance, is moving at glacial speed, though there are green shoots, with programmes such as the Lady Margaret Hall foundation year and University College Oxford’s Opportunity Programme showing some lateral thinking. Change must come at these universities – and others not performing well that still seem to avoid the glare of press scrutiny.

But if you abolish tuition fees you also abolish the cash that provides the means to support low-income and underrepresented students. And there is scant evidence that higher fees have deterred less-advantaged young people.

There are less drastic changes that would help. These include a recasting of the current regime as a graduate tax to relieve the sense of debt burden, a grace period on interest rates while studying and a block on early repayment. Most fundamentally, a reintroduction of maintenance grants to the poorest learners gives a powerful message that the government wants these students to go to university and significantly reduces the strain of their living costs.

When the fruits of higher education are fairly distributed, I will be happy to see a free system. Until that day, tuition fees are a smart and socially just way to ensure the widest range of students.

Anne-Marie Canning is director of social mobility and student success at King’s College London



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