Tuition fees: three quick reflections on this week’s debate

by Stephen Tall on February 2, 2012

I’ve blogged a few times this week about the post-£9k tuition fees university application figures — here are a further three quick thoughts:

Mature students

Largely missing from the media’s coverage of the headline-grabbing drop in overall applications, is the stark gap between applications from teenagers, broadly flat, and the plummet among mature students (those aged 19+). This shouldn’t suprise us: similar drops occurred when Labour itnroduced fees in ’98 and tripled them in ’03. But we need to understand better what lies behind the figures. Are fees deterring those who missed out on university first time and now feel they can’t afford to try and better themselves when they have other financial responsiblities (kids, mortgage, etc)? (There’s a case study here in the Guardian.) Or is it mainly affecting those who want to study for second degrees in order to re-train for a new profession?

The former group worries me more. If this year’s drop were to be the start of a trend (which hasn’t been the case after previous price rises) then it will likely entrench social immobility. However, in both categories I think we need to think more deeply about the length and style of the type of education needed. How many of these mature students actually need (or even want) a full three-year undergraduate course delivered on campus? Are there other ways in which such a course can be delivered more efficiently without compromising on quality?

We don’t know enough yet

Understandably there has been relief among Lib Dems that this week’s figures are better than feared: the predicted slump in applications from school-leavers did not become a self-fulfilling prophesy (as, I’m afraid to say, I think a number on the left half-hoped they would). But there has been, perhaps, too much relief. And yes I plead guilty, m’Lud. First, these figures are only one year’s. We need to see longer-term trends to know what impact if any this move towards market-fees is having. Secondly, though it appears according to Ucas’s own figures that young people from disadvantaged areas are not being disproportionately affected, we need to drill down further into these figures. There can be great socio-economic disparity within areas (think of the London boroughs), so the analysis of who potentially may be deterred needs to be much more granular. I’m sure my colleagues at The Sutton Trust will be doing that job through the indpeendent commission they’ve established.

Lib Dem HE policy needs to be informed by evidence

‘Evidence-based policy’ is a discipline most Lib Dems sign up to in theory, less so in practice. If (and I stress the ‘if’) we find that fees have no significant impact on the likelihood of poorer young people applying to university it would be illogical to maintain our opposition. So what comes next? Well, chances are that some form of compromise will be reached (politics being what it is), and in return for scrapping the party’s ‘scrap fees’ policy, Lib Dem conference delegates will insist on a variety of well-meaning spendign commitments intended to address perceived disadvantage for low-income applicants. Fine, in principle, but let’s actually see what will make a difference. Centre Forum’s Tim Leunig has already made the point here that fee waivers and bursaries appear to have little effect on influencing poorer applicants’ choices of university, compared to (for instance) their view of the quality of the university or course they’re applying to. If we really want to help those kids we need to be clear about what will be effective, what will work, rather than simply chuck some cash at the problem to make ourselves feel better.