Free university tuition ‘could lead to poor subsidising the rich’

Disadvantaged are under-represented in degree study because they are ‘simply not smart enough’, says researcher

February 2, 2016
Coins collected in glass jar

England should not scrap tuition fees because “free” university education could lead to the “poor subsidising the rich”, according to a higher education academic.

John Jerrim, reader in educational and social statistics at the UCL Institute of Education (IoE), argued that free publicly funded higher education could result in “a situation where disadvantaged low-income individuals” pay taxes that are then “drawn out by individuals from rich backgrounds”.

Speaking at the IoE’s launch of the Centre for Global Higher Education on 2 February, Dr Jerrim said that this is because individuals from rich backgrounds are more likely to go to university, and free tuition would mean that they would “draw out a lot of money from the pool”.

“The rich pay a large chunk of tax. But the poor also pay into the tax pool. It could end up that the poor could subsidise the education of the rich,” he said, in an argument he titled “Why Jeremy Corbyn’s plans are right-wing”. Mr Corbyn, the Labour leader, said during the Labour leadership contest last year that he wanted to scrap tuition fees and reintroduce maintenance grants.

Dr Jerrim backed up his argument with data that showed that rich individuals each received a £4,000 subsidy for higher education, on average, in the pre-1997 funding model, while those with low incomes each paid an average net contribution of £2,000.

Percentage of children who achieve a Pisa maths score higher than average, of those who later attend an elite university


Percentage of children who achieve a Pisa maths score higher than average, of those who later attend an elite university
John Jerrim, based on figures from OECD's PISA database

“The debate needs to move on from whether we’re going to have tuition fees or not. Tuition fees are here and here to stay. What we need to work out is how to get the current system to work better,” he said.

Dr Jerrim also argued, while adding caveats, that “the main reason why more poor students don’t go to university is that by the time they are teenagers they are simply not smart enough”.

He presented data from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) showing the average maths score of children who later attended “elite” universities in Australia, England and the US. In each of those countries, the majority of children in that cohort achieving an above-average score were from rich backgrounds.

Dr Jerrim said these data prove that the “vast majority of our resources, time and effort should go into raising secondary school achievement to close the university access gap”.

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