Letter: Get the equality argument right

December 1, 2000

Baroness Blackstone points out that young people from poorer backgrounds do not pay tuition fees, implying that there is, therefore, no reason for them to be deterred from entering higher education ("Rising debt hits access efforts", THES, November 17).

In our research among young working-class people in further education colleges and in full-time work, we found that not one of the 118 in the study showed any awareness that students from poorer backgrounds would not have to pay full fees.

The vast majority did not know the level of tuition fees (but believed that they were high) and did not understand the arrangements for student loans. But they all spoke of their concerns about levels of student debt.

Those applying to enter higher education lacked detailed knowledge of funding arrangements and a number of students we interviewed in the first week of their university courses in autumn 1999 claimed that they had discovered that grants had been abolished only when they had committed themselves to applying to enter higher education.

There are several factors that may contribute to this. Funding arrangements have undergone frequent changes, with the introduction of student loans and of tuition fees, the abolition of grants and the introduction of hardship funds and access bursaries.

Prospective students found the information available so complex that they were unable to assess their likely income.

And the information is less easily available to those from poorer backgrounds; they are less likely to be able to draw on the knowledge and experience of family members, and previous research has shown that students in colleges are less well-informed than those in schools.

But even if prospective students from poorer backgrounds did understand the funding system, and were aware that they would not have to pay fees, the prospect of taking out a loan to cover living costs, thus accumulating considerable debt, is a major deterrent.

It is of little help to know that the "average" graduate receives a good rate of return on their investment. Our respondents believed that the graduate job market was over-crowded and that those from less-privileged groups were the least likely to achieve well-paid graduate jobs.

Merryn Hutchings and Louise Archer Institute for Policy Studies in Education University of North London

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