The size of the task that faced the government as it grappled with the reform of student funding has been revealed in a research document that exposes stark differences between different income groups’ views on tuition fees, graduate debt and higher education expansion.
Research carried out for the Department for Education and Skills in 2001 and 2002 reveals such a range of conflicting, and sometimes diametrically opposed, views among the population that it makes the government’s task of reforming student support to suit everyone all but impossible.
The research, carried out by Opinion Leader Research and released this month by the DFES, helped to shape the higher education white paper, published in January. The white paper announced the government’s plans to abolish upfront fees and introduce £3,000 top-up fees repayable after graduation, which would all be supported by grants.
Two key attitudinal groups emerge in the research: the “universalists” and “middle England”.
The universalists tend to be from poorer backgrounds with little or no experience of higher education. They see higher education as a privilege that requires some financial sacrifice. But they are also more likely to be put off higher education because of the perceived cost in fees and loans. They back further expansion of higher education.
Young people in this group tend to see degrees as a passport to higher paying and more fulfiling jobs than their parents have. Degrees are seen as “entry-level” qualifications for many jobs. This strong belief in a degree being a ticket to better things balances out many of the respondents’ innate fear of debt, at least to an extent. Most conclude that a degree, while far from an easy option financially, is worth the sacrifice.
Universalists think people should be able to go to university whatever their socioeconomic background and feel that the system of upfront tuition fees and maintenance loans works against this.
Many parents are concerned about the system’s emphasis on the continuing dependency of those aged 18 and over on them. They call for a funding system that means less reliance on parental support.
Universalist concerns have been addressed partially in the white paper. The government tackled the dependency issue by proposing a move to a graduate repayment system. The reintroduction of £1,000 grants from 2004 could also help to dispel fears about the general affordability of higher education. But it remains to be seen whether significantly higher debt levels generated by top-up fees deter the poorest.
The middle-England group are generally higher-earning people who have been through an elitist higher education system and who benefited from grants. One of their main aims, by providing financial support, is to minimise the amount of debt built up by their children at university.
Generally, they feel that the government has failed to make a definitive case in favour of expansion. Many parents say that university is really of value only to a minority of people and that too many “unsuited” children are being allowed in.
Universities, particularly the post-1992 institutions, are seen to be offering degrees in subjects deemed unsuitable for academic study.
They criticise employers who appear to be raising minimum qualification requirements to degree level for many jobs that in the past were thought to demand vocational hands-on experience. As a consequence, they think there is a lack of credible vocational alternatives for young people who they perceive as being less suited to academic study.
The white paper may address middle-England concerns on expansion. The fact that almost all of the additional higher education places up to 2006 will be for more vocational foundation degree courses might reassure them over degree dilution and a vocational skills shortfall.
But the group is less likely to be satisfied with the government’s plan to levy top-up fees of up to £3,000 from 2006. The full £3,000 is likely to be charged more often by the pre-1992 research-led universities that often attract more applicants from higher socioeconomic groups. It could mean that more middle-England students graduate with higher debts, which is exactly what the survey says their parents are anxious to avoid.
Researchers interviewed students at old and new universities; part-time students; potential students at GCSE and A level; students’ parents; parents of students who also had younger children; parents of potential students; and employers who had fewer than 20 employees who also did their own payrolls. Research was carried out in seven cities across the country and in Hertfordshire.