Access denied: tuition-fee regime may make Oxbridge myth a reality

For years, Brendan Burchell worked hard to widen participation: now he fears that all the gains made in this vital area will be lost

February 10, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

Many of our elite universities will have little choice but to charge £9,000, or close to it, in tuition fees once the new funding regime takes effect. Even this will cover only a portion of the cost of educating our students. But we must be aware that this is going to have at least one pernicious consequence - it will severely damage our appeal to students from poorer backgrounds. Some universities might attempt a gesture by setting their fees a few hundred pounds below £9,000, but the effect is likely to be negligible.

I was an admissions tutor at Magdalene College, Cambridge from 2003 to 2008, with special responsibility for outreach. I am proud to have been one of the very many people, including lecturers and students, paid staff and volunteers, who have brought about a gradual improvement in the representation of talented students from comprehensive schools, the North of England and working-class families - all of whom traditionally have been underrepresented at Cambridge. A similar process has taken place at the University of Oxford, as well as many other top institutions.

Anyone involved in this process will be aware that these changes have been very slow and costly, and have come about only because of the great efforts made by university admissions offices and, at Oxbridge, many colleges, decade after decade. No one believes that we have yet achieved our goal of needs-blind admissions, but we're nearer the target than at any time in history.

Concerns about the cost of higher education are nothing new, and Cambridge - for example - has been in the fortunate position until now of being able to offset the economic cost of higher education to disadvantaged students with, for instance, the Isaac Newton Trust bursary scheme.

But the "rational" or "objective" economic arguments for the cost and benefits of higher education for particular students are only one part of the picture. In many families, student debt is not seen as a rational component of investment in the future, but rather is overlaid with negative connotations of fear, doorstep debt collectors and hardship.

These debt-averse values are often shared by those whom the students would normally turn to for advice, such as parents, relatives and teachers, making change fiendishly and frustratingly difficult.

For many years now, one of the most powerful outreach messages that we have been broadcasting - and something that comes as a great surprise to many access audiences - is to state categorically and unreservedly that going to a top university is no more costly than the vast majority of other UK institutions.

However, if the changes proposed in the Browne Review are implemented as anticipated, this will no longer be the case.

Evidence already suggests that since the reform of tuition fees in 2004, many talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds have chosen to study at universities where they can reside in the family home, or are based in areas with lower living and rental costs, or where there are good prospects for term-time employment. These considerations put most of our top universities at a disadvantage.

Add to this greatly increased tuition fees and the fact that our leading institutions are likely to be more expensive than many other institutions, and it becomes clear that these proposed changes will undo, in one fell swoop, all those improvements that Cambridge, Oxford and others have fought for in their representation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Whether staff in these institutions are interested in outreach because they value equality of opportunity and a more open and fair society, or simply because they feel threatened by the proposed penalties facing universities that perform poorly in access league tables, they are bound to conclude that the deterioration in their university's position is likely to be very severe. For this reason, the setting of the tuition-fee level in the top-ranked universities is going to be crucial.

Universities must urgently consider the feasibility and the cost of measures that might be taken to minimise the damage of these proposals on our access policies. So far the government has done almost nothing to mitigate the damage to social mobility that will come about because of its reforms: the concessions made on pupils in receipt of free school meals amount to nothing more than tinkering at the gossamer-thin fringes.

We must bear in mind that this isn't a simple case of economic costs, but a battle for the hearts and minds of people who all too often perceive our top universities, particularly Oxbridge, to be distant, socially excluding and prohibitively expensive.

If this process is handled badly and our access trajectory is reversed, this is exactly what we risk becoming.

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