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OU head: Are more students from poorer backgrounds going to university?

Peter Horrocks

Peter Horrocks

Vice-Chancellor
The Open University
 
The Vice-Chancellor of The Open University looks at the numbers behind claims by the Chancellor in his Budget that more students from poorer backgrounds are going to university.

Standing at the dispatch box to deliver his budget yesterday, the Chancellor made a significant statement about student numbers.  We were told that record numbers of students from low income backgrounds are applying to universities.  I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the figures involved to see what sort of picture they actually paint.

Let’s start with the often-reported claim that the rise in tuition fees has not deterred people from applying to go to university.  This is only true in respect of full-time students.  There has been a 41% decline in undergraduates studying part-time in England over the last five years.  Prior to the rise in tuition fees, the proportion of undergraduates studying part-time in England was one third; it has now fallen to one fifth.

Taking part-time and full-time numbers together, across the whole UK, there has been an overall decline of 20% in first year total UK undergraduate numbers between 2009/10 and 2013/14, a fall of 174,000 students.

Next there’s the Chancellor’s claim that a “record number” of students from low income backgrounds are going to university.  The challenge here is twofold: how to define poorer students and how to find data from across the sector to support such a claim.  We don’t know for certain, but it’s possible the Chancellor was basing his claim on the number of UCAS applications by 18 year-olds for full-time study living in poorer areas, which has gone up.  However, when you look at the total number of students from poorer neighbourhoods actually starting their degrees in England since the introduction of the new fee regime, you get a different picture.

The number of full-time students from these areas has dropped slightly and if you combine that with a much steeper decline in the number of those students studying part-time, you see a drop of almost 13% between 2011/12 and 2013/14.  That’s 7,000 fewer students at English HEIs from the sort of backgrounds where students currently receive maintenance grants.

The Government wants to support hard working people and to save money. In that case, supporting part-time study should be on its list of priorities.  Part-time and distance learning is highly cost effective as fees are much lower and students don’t incur maintenance costs. (A student on a full time course with maximum fees and maintenance will soon incur a loan obligation of £51600 at the end of their degree. An OU student will have a debt of only £16200, less than one third of the cost).

Those who earn and learn receive immediate improvements to their skills which they can take straight into the workplace.  They also pay taxes while studying and pay back their loans in full measure, as they are mostly already earning. Part time students are the ultimate “hard-working people” as they study hard while holding down jobs.

The Chancellor described the UK’s higher education sector as “vital to secure our long term economic future”.  I could not agree more, but the government now needs to seize the opportunity to redress the wasteful fall in part-time study through policy remedies that can aid economically significant and cost effective study.

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