Do university tuition fees deter the poorest?

by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2009

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 today, though, this article in The Independent, Universities finally open their doors to the poor:
Research reveals big rise in number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This shows that, over the past decade – and therefore since the introduction of, first, 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 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.

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.