It is perhaps unsurprising that those contested accounts have been evident during this election campaign, particularly in the light of Labour's manifesto commitment to abolishing tuition fees in England as way of ensuring that financial background does not deter students from going to university ('No one should be put off educating themselves for lack of money or through fear of debt. There is a real fear that students are being priced out of university education. Last year saw the steepest fall in university applications for 30 years').
This is no idle debate. Universities transform lives. Going to university leads to new ways of seeing the world, new horizons and networks, and significantly enhanced job opportunities. But these benefits are experienced differently according to social background. According to UCAS' end of cycle report in December 2016, entry to higher education for 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged group (calculated by UCAS according to their multiple equality measure) was 13.6%, compared to 52.1% for the most advantaged. The size of the gap between these figures is shocking. But as explained in Universities UK's October 2016 report on social mobility in higher education, the causes for the participation gap are various, extensive and deep-rooted, with inequality being passed from generation to generation with depressing persistence.
UUK's 2016 report concluded that an essential component in tackling the gap was to ensure a rigorously evidenced-based approach. This means avoiding easily made but incorrect assumptions. One of which is that the introduction of tuition fees in England has led to a reduction in student numbers, and in particular from students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The reality is that the numbers of young students entering university, including the numbers from disadvantaged backgrounds, has increased consistently over the years, notwithstanding the tripling of tuition fees in 2012. The position is not so positive for mature students – but that is another story.
In terms of English 18 year olds, the proportion of English 18 year olds who entered higher education through UCAS in 2016 increased by 4% to 32.5%, the highest recorded entry rate for England. Further, 43% of the young population in England enter higher education by age 19, again the highest ever level.
This trend of increasing participation is acknowledged in the thoughtful and nuanced report from Claire Callender and Geoff Mason, covered by the media today. The report examines the link between participation and social class, referencing attitudes towards debt among prospective students. It documents levels of debt aversion among different groups, drawing a clear distinction between attitudes to debt-aversion and actual participation. What the report does not do is support any simplistic assumption that levels of tuition fees account for differences in participation between different social groups.
The report is however not helpful in addressing one of the flaws in the current system that has been a long source of frustration to many of us working in higher education. That is the conflation of student loans with debt. The survey questions used by Callender and Mason ask prospective students about their attitudes to debt ('debt is a normal part of today's lifestyle'; 'it is OK to be in debt if you can pay it off' etc). These questions imply that student loans are just like other domestic forms of debt such as credit card loans. This is far from the truth: tuition fee loans lead to means-tested graduate repayments, and if you can't pay them off due to low graduate earnings, they are written off by the state.
This distinction matters considerably. For many of us who believe that tuition fee loans are responsible for the lifting of student number controls and the large and positive expansion of student numbers, particularly for students from more disadvantaged groups, these loans are socially progressive, and have had a positive impact. The same cannot be said for levels of domestic debt, which are socially regressive and are rightly a cause of serious concern. By conflating the two, we risk both condoning potentially dangerous levels of private debt, and at the same time undermining the expansion of higher education.
The causes of different participation levels in higher education between different groups are numerous and complex. It must be an urgent priority for Universities UK and others in the sector to do what we can to reduce the gap. At Universities UK, we have an ambitious programme of work that will be rolled out in 2017-18, where we will be working with school, government, employers, third sector partners and of course universities to address these issues. We will be looking to strengthen the evidence base of what works in terms of widening participation initiatives, how we can develop closer and more effective links with schools, how we can improve and prioritise the role of careers advice, what we can do to secure better access to graduate employment, and much more. What we will not be examining is the role of tuition fees. This is not to be complacent about the impact of high levels of student loans: we need to monitor closely to assess what impact they are having, and on whom. However, for the moment the evidence is simply not there to suggest that they are the problem. And this is too important an issue to fabricate imaginary obstacles – there are enough real ones to contend with.
Well done for explaining (at least at the end) that tuition fees arre not a "debt" in the usual sense of the word. My impression is that much of the campaigning against tuition fees reduces applications from disadvantaged groups because it uses this word to add rhetorical power.
And it might be worth pointing out too that heavily subsidised university education has been and remains in practice a middle-class subsidy.