Exam results, not background, determine university access

Universities do not discriminate against poorer students and differences in participation are instead driven by exam results, a study suggests.

June 29, 2012

Entitled The link between household income, university applications and university attendance, the study finds that the students from the richest fifth of households are almost three times more likely to go to university, and six times as likely to study at a Russell Group institution.

But Jake Anders, a doctoral student at the Institute of Education, University of London, and author of the study, said that most of this difference was due to application decisions, which themselves were based on exam results.

“My research highlights the fundamental role of prior attainment in determining university applications and hence participation,” he writes in a summary of the research.

“Policymakers interested in narrowing the gap in higher education participation between young people from rich and poor families should focus their attention on ensuring that students from poorer backgrounds have the necessary qualifications to apply to university.”

Another paper published in the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ journal Fiscal Studies concludes that rise in tuition fees will leave the average graduate almost £9,000 worse off over their lifetime but is a “substantially more progressive” system than the current one.

This September, the maximum tuition fee that universities can charge will increase from £3,000 to £9,000. The IFS paper, entitled The distributional impact of the 2012–13 higher education funding reforms in England, finds that students will face extra tuition fees of around £15,000 over the course of a degree.

Under the current system, graduates pay 9 per cent of anything they earn over £15,795. This threshold will rise to £21,000 for those entering university in 2012-13, and after 30 years any remaining debt will be wiped off.

According to a summary of the IFS paper, roughly the lowest earning 30 per cent of graduates will pay back less under the new system than the old. Everyone else will be worse off because of the higher fees, and, including interest, the highest-earning 15 per cent will pay back more than they borrowed.

The paper also says that universities will be better off under the new system because the extra fees will make up for cuts in teaching money from government.

Haroon Chowdry, senior research economist at the IFS and one of the report’s authors, said that students should not “in principle” be put off by higher fees because “poorer graduates will actually be better off under the new university funding regime”.

“But this may not be well understood among potential applicants,” he added. “To ensure that the socio-economic gap in university participation does not widen further, the government must provide prospective students with clear and simple information about the costs and benefits of going to each university, and try to ensure that the fear of debt alone does not prevent them from applying.”

Meanwhile, a third paper published in the journal questions whether the huge expansion of university education over the past 30 years in the UK has benefited the rich more than the poor.

The quest for more and more education: implications for social mobility compared those born in 1958 and 1970, and found the proportion with a degree increased from just 9 per cent to 10 per cent among the poorest fifth of families, but from 28 per cent to 37 per cent among the richest fifth.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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