One of the purposes of a university education is to foster social justice and social mobility; to enable people from all backgrounds and cultures to contribute to society – and this is hardwired into the missions of our greatest universities.
Looking back in the UK’s history, through the period when there was a cap on the number of students attending universities, so many students from less-privileged backgrounds missed out. In recent years, since the cap was lifted, more progress has been made. We must make sure that any future changes in the way that universities are funded does not reverse this positive trend and return the country to limiting the opportunities for the next generation to a select few.
Currently, there is a huge moral and financial commitment to widening participation across the university sector. Russell Group universities are spending about £1,000 of every £9,250 annual fee on widening access and support for students from traditionally underrepresented groups.
At Queen Mary University of London, this equates to at least £10 million a year. We are proud that we attract students from diverse backgrounds: more than 90 per cent come from state schools, at least 40 per cent are the first in their families to attend, more than 60 per cent are from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds and 27 per cent are from households with less than £10,000 annual income. But we are not complacent and we know that there is more to do.
Providing opportunities to all students, irrespective of their background, is of particular personal significance to me. I left school at 16 to become an apprentice; the concept of a university education was just not on my, or my family’s, radar and was never raised by my school. Luckily my apprenticeship provided me with a business and technology qualification (BTEC) that allowed me to apply for a degree. Going to university broadened my horizons and opened the doors to so many opportunities. I am now proud to lead a Russell Group university that recognises that students come through all sorts of routes, backgrounds and challenges to get here. As far as Queen Mary is concerned, if an applicant has the potential to succeed with us, we will try to support them to join us.
Returning to the potential changes facing university funding: the stark reality is that any reduction in income, or changes to the current system, will decrease the number of and support for students from under-represented backgrounds.
Many access schemes would simply be scrapped, and the support for students should they reach university removed. This would throw recent progress on widening access to higher education into reverse and we will continue to fail to address the country’s stark embedded inequalities.
In my view, the language of “tuition fees” is unhelpful. At the moment, the cost of university for UK students is shared between the general taxpayer and the individual student. The student contribution is in fact a graduate contribution linked to future earnings, payable on the income that the individual earns above £25,000 and is written off after 30 years.
The more the individual earns in the future, the more they contribute to their university education. There is no evidence that the rise in fees adversely affected the number of the most disadvantaged students attending university: proportions of these students increased when the fees rose.
If the university system is wholly, or significantly, state-funded by the general taxpayer, some of whom will not benefit from a university education, we will return to a cap on student numbers and a corresponding decrease in the number of less-privileged students attending university. There has to be a balance, and university funding has to be sufficient to support the many people for whom, like for me, university is not the obvious choice.
My plea is to ensure that we continue to address the embedded inequalities in the country and that universities have the required funding, which the current system provides, to allow all UK students irrespective of their background the opportunity to attend university.
Colin Bailey is president and principal at Queen Mary University of London.