The rising cost of UK higher education risks pricing out the disadvantaged

Progress on widening participation may go into reverse if mounting scepticism about university’s value isn’t addressed, says Zahir Irani

五月 5, 2022
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Attitudes to higher education among lower- and middle-income UK parents are changing.

Considerations such as the rising cost of living and the sudden leap in student loan repayments have been seeping into conversations, changing the balance of people’s vague mental equations around the value versus the costs of going to university.

But is anyone in government taking any notice of the upsurge in scepticism? Record numbers of UK students – about half a million – have this year accepted places at universities. Numbers of applications for undergraduate and postgraduate courses are now expected to hit 1 million by 2026, says admissions body Ucas. The demographic bulge in numbers of 18-year-olds means that ministers and institutions are focused on growing capacity without damaging the student experience.

But policymakers shouldn’t be fooled. Underneath this healthy picture is a basic shift in public perceptions, with implications for attempts to avoid structural inequalities. Without more effort to pre-empt problems in financing both living costs and tuition fees, the coming years will create a long-term legacy: higher education becoming no longer a leveller but rather a divider in UK society, once more sifting out the lower-income households, just as it always did historically.

In Bradford, we have seen real progress in raising levels of participation by trying to understand the barriers and motivations involved. This has led us to focus on employability skills and practical support. There is a young and diverse population with a great deal of energy when it comes to new enterprise, and university study has been an important stepping stone for raising aspirations and moving away from a low-skills economy, stemming the flow of talent out of the region by providing work-ready talent for local employers.

Underpinning for all this progress in remaking the city has been the basic financial viability of taking time out to study. Now, the rising costs of energy, food, clothes and travel are all going to have to be factored into calculations about affordability, regardless of whether students are living at home or in student accommodation.

But inflation is not the only headwind we face. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has pointed out some worrying trends in the government’s approach to student finance over many years. By freezing the parental earnings threshold above which maintenance loans start to reduce and limiting increases in the size of loans compared with inflation, there’s been a tightening of financial screws. It’s nothing new: the freeze has been in place since 2008. In principle, what had been set as the lower income threshold then (£25,000) should now be £34,000. The expectation that parents will be willing and able to fill the growing gap is not always realised in practice.

The great majority of students are forced to take out the maximum loans possible. And the cost of servicing those loans has seen a sudden spike, with interest rates set to hit 12 per cent in the autumn, according to the IFS, and to continue on a “roller-coaster ride” for years to come – encouraging more uncertainty and more stories of big increases in repayment bills.

And now we also have the suggestion that any access to student loans should be dependent on minimum eligibility requirements (a minimum of a grade 4 in English and maths GCSE, or two E grades at A level). Opponents have pointed out that this would disproportionally affect ethnic minority students and people from lower-income households. About a quarter of school pupils eligible for free school meals, says the IFS, would not be able to access a student loan.

In other words, the simple and relentless logic of the market is taking over. The argument from financial advisers is always that people shouldn’t bother with the headline figures of student debt, the fears around carrying a £50,000 debt; all that matters is what will actually need to be repaid. A fair point – but it doesn’t stop the worries about the potential for long-term repayments and how these can hit earnings. And it doesn’t ease the increasing burden of immediate living costs.

School-leavers from the most disadvantaged communities are going to be quietly deterred from even considering university. Among those who do still go, more are likely to combine their studies with part-time working, possibly increasing levels of attrition. And they are particularly unlikely to enrol on higher-cost courses such as medicine and architecture.

Higher education has an essential role in creating a more equal society, but the UK must face up to the fact that this comes with a significant cost for taxpayers. We need an open debate, and must not allow renewed and strengthened inequalities to be just accepted as part of the natural order of haves and have-nots.

It isn’t just students from poorer backgrounds who will suffer if they are once again locked out of higher education. The UK economy continues to need higher skills and reskilling to meet the demand for specialists in areas such as digital tech, engineering, healthcare and management.

We’ve not yet seen the impact of evolving attitudes and the doubts involved – but it’s coming. A new White Paper is needed on the future of funding and equality in higher education before it is too late to tip the balance of the costs-and-returns equation back in the right direction.

Zahir Irani is deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford.



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Reader's comments (2)

Well argued case for fundamental reform of funding for Higher Education, particularly Universities. The present arrangements are over complex, unfair, inefficient and inappropriate. The new world of HE funding needs to be based on subject level costs to deliver, so institutions do not have to cross subsidise courses and a student repayment element linked to actual, individual incomes so the more money you earn the more tax you pay. There is no need for complex, individual loan repayments, write offs, varying rates of interest etc. Keep it simple. The public want clarity and transparency and accept the costof HE should come out of general tax receipts as long as we have a fair tax system. Most graduates accept they should pay more tax as they earn more.
When I was young there were no tuition fees and a system of student grants, dependent on parental income. The price was that less people went to university.