Debt fears deter poorest from applying to university, study says

While participation has continued to grow under £9,000 fee regime, researchers argue efforts to widen access would be helped by abolition of fees

June 1, 2017
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Large numbers of young people from poorer backgrounds in England are being deterred from applying to university because of fear of incurring student loan debts, a major study has revealed.

As voters prepare to deliver their verdict on Labour’s plans to scrap tuition fees, researchers at the UCL Institute of Education have argued that the fact that higher education participation has continued to widen under the £9,000 fee regime is no cause for complacency.

They use the results of two surveys – conducted in 2002, when fees were £1,000 a year, and 2015, under the higher fee regime – to contend that efforts to widen access would likely be more successful if fees were abolished or means-tested.

Claire Callender and Geoff Mason found that, overall, respondents have become much more receptive over time to the idea of using loans to pay for a degree: 74 per cent of 17- to 21-year-olds agreed with the statement that “borrowing money to pay for a university education is a good investment” in 2015, compared with 52 per cent in 2002.

However, students from the richest backgrounds are much less likely to be averse to incurring debt compared with young people from the poorest backgrounds; and, crucially, the gap between the two groups’ views widened significantly between 2002 and 2015.

Professor Callender and Mr Mason found that a lower percentage of working-class students said that they intended to apply to university (85 per cent) compared with those from an upper-class background of similar ability (89 per cent) because of these fears, according to a paper in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

And, while in 2002 middle-income students had been significantly less debt averse than the poorest students, in 2015 their responses were similar, suggesting that this group may have been “squeezed” by higher fees and reduced grant eligibility.

The findings, based on the responses of 1,028 students in 2002 and 1,427 in 2015, come as almost all English higher education institutions prepare to start charging up to £9,250 under the first year of the teaching excellence framework. Further inflation-linked rises are planned on an annual basis.

Ucas data show that the higher education entry rate for young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in England increased by 29 per cent between 2011 and 2016, but the most privileged teenagers remain nearly two and a half times more likely to enrol.

Professor Callender, who holds chairs in higher education policy at the UCL IoE and Birkbeck, University of London, said that policymakers were “complacent” about the impact of high fees and debt on widening participation.

“What this study is suggesting is that debt aversion deters young people, especially the poorest, from applying to university; so both high fees and levels of student loan debt matter and cannot be ignored,” she said.

“It is likely that participation would be even higher, particularly among lower-income groups, if students did not have to accumulate so much debt.”

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

There is no such thing as a free education. It has to be paid for from somewhere.
There is something decidedly odd about this report. It says a lower percentage of working-class students said they intended to apply to university (85 %) compared with those from an upper-class background of similar ability (89 %). Both figures are high and I wonder if 85% is significantly different to 89% given that in 2015 there was only 1427 students surveyed, and the above comparison seems to between two subgroups of this total. Given these figures it seems very much like this difference is not significant.
Geoff Mason replies to Jason T: Debt aversion by young people from low-income households is only one of many factors contributing to their relatively low participation rates in higher education. In particular, HE participation by young people from poorer backgrounds is restricted by relatively low prior education attainments, reflecting the many social and economic disadvantages that they experience during their primary and secondary education. In the study of student debt and HE participation reported here, our 2015 survey focussed solely on students in England who were studying towards HE entry-level qualifications such as A levels or Level 3 vocational qualifications. Thus students from low-income households who were captured in this survey included many who had succeeded in overcoming different types of socio-economic disadvantage and appeared highly motivated to go on to higher education. In this context it is not surprising that the four percentage point gap between working-class and upper-class students in the survey in their intentions to apply to university is relatively small. For the record, this differential is statistically significant but only at a modest level (10%), reflecting the relatively small sub-group sample sizes noted by Jason T. More importantly, after controlling for a number of variables affecting HE participation intentions (such as age, gender, ethnicity, type of school or college attended and prior attainments at GCSE level), working-class students in the survey were found to be both more averse to taking on debt than upper-class students and more likely to be deterred from applying to university because of their debt averse attitudes. Both these findings were statistically significant at the 5% level or better. Middle-class students were just as likely to hold debt-averse attitudes as working-class students but were less likely to be deterred by these concerns from applying to participate in HE.

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