Don't penalise the virtuous

November 28, 2003

A national bursary scheme is the fairest way to widen access, argues Michael Thorne

For a government often accused of pandering to Middle England, the introduction of top-up fees is a brave step. The redistributive case for graduates to contribute more to the costs of their education is clear and, as the most equitable system - a tax on every graduate - would be political suicide, so it is to the students of the future that the government is looking to make up the funding shortfall.

The Higher Education Bill is good in parts, but the devil, as always, is in the detail. The switch from upfront fees to what is in effect an interest-free loan repayable when the graduate is earning at least £15,000 a year, is undoubtedly a good thing.

Since 1998, the impact of upfront fees has had a major effect on thousands of students, particularly at institutions driving the widening access agenda. At the University of East London, we have directly experienced the impact of this, with many of our students heroically juggling studies with family commitments and low-paid work. The most recent figures show that 60 per cent of students work during term-time. At universities such as the ours it is closer to 90 per cent.

There is no doubt that debt is a great deterrent to pursuing a university education and puts severe pressure on academic progression.

Education secretary Charles Clarke has admitted that the effects of the quasi-market created by variable fees cannot be easily predicted. High fees run counter to our mission to widen access, but charging less could mean we might be unable to cover our core costs in the long term, which will jeopardise not only our institutions but regional development.

Another devilish detail is in the muddle over fair access and bursaries.

The current proposal, driven by a desire to get more disadvantaged students into Oxbridge, is to make universities use a third of their top-up income for bursaries. But this will have the perverse effect of penalising universities with high numbers of students from low-income backgrounds.

Universities that most need to provide bursaries will be the ones that will find it most difficult to charge the maximum fees, and the more disadvantaged students a university has, the more fee income will be diverted to bursaries.

The system would create incentives for universities to charge the highest fee and would cut the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

While maximising the bursaries it would in effect "reward universities for not widening participation".

A fairer and simpler solution, which would also obviate the need for the potential bureaucratic quagmire of "taxing" Russell Group universities that fail to meet their targets on wider access, would be to set up a national bursary scheme, which would see all universities pay into a central pot, with this money being distributed to students on the basis of need. This would help redistribute fees income by channelling it into bursaries across the sector. Even in the US, much state intervention in levels of both fees and bursaries is needed to reflect local priorities.

But bursaries, however they are organised, will not solve the more fundamental challenge of endemic skills deficits, low attainment and social exclusion.

The University of East London is one of the many modern universities working with regional partners to raise aspirations in areas where educational attainment is low and, despite the advent of fees, we have succeeded in attracting more students than ever before from underrepresented groups.

About 45 per cent of our students have working-class backgrounds, and more than half are from ethnic minorities. By helping these students to reap the benefits of a university education and enter the professional and graduate workforce, we are creating a more diverse and fairer society.

If the government is serious about access, this is an effort that needs to be recognised and supported. And even if this flagship bill survives the inevitable crossfire from left and right, there are still gaping holes below the waterline that need urgent repair.

Michael Thorne is vice-chancellor of the University of East London.

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