Students from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to reconsider going to university as tuition fees rise under the teaching excellence framework, research suggests.
A survey of 1,490 English school and college students aged between 17 and 19 conducted by the National Education Opportunities Network (Neon) found that nearly 40 per cent of them said that they would think differently about enrolling in higher education if fees rose to between £10,000 and £12,000.
Significantly, teenagers who were eligible for free school meals were 14 percentage points more likely to say that they would reconsider, compared with those who were not eligible; and students from ethnic minorities were 7 percentage points more likely to think again than their white classmates.
If the teaching excellence framework is implemented, government projections predict inflationary increase would push up tuition fees to a maximum of £10,130 in 2020-21, reaching £11,697 in 2025-26.
Graeme Atherton, director of Neon, acknowledged that surveys conducted before the raising of the fee cap to £9,000 in 2012 had indicated that students would be put off from going to the university, and that participation had actually increased. But he argued that policymakers should be “mindful” of the results.
“We have got to think about the elasticity of price for students and whether there is a point at which it would become too expensive,” Dr Atherton said. “I think this gives us an insight of the potential impact of the TEF and higher fees.”
Nearly half of students said that they would not think differently about going to university, no matter how high tuition fees were.
But other results in the survey, which was supported by the University and College Union, might give further cause for concern.
Students from ethnic minorities and those who were eligible for free school meals were significantly more likely to say that the cost of university meant that they might have to live at home while studying or go to a university near where they grew up, potentially missing out on vital experiences or making a choice that is not best for them.
The same students were also more likely to feel that the abolition of maintenance grants meant that they would need to spend additional hours in part-time work.
Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, said that there was a “very real danger” that higher fees would “damage progress made by widening participation initiatives”.
“When they do choose to go on to degree study, young people from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to put cost at the forefront of their decision-making, opting for institutions close to home which offer cheaper study, that can be combined with part-time work,” Ms Hunt said. “The worst-case scenario is a polarised university system of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.”
Jonathan Simons, head of the education unit at the thinktank Policy Exchange, said that previous warnings had proved to be unfounded and highlighted that the gap in participation between rich and poor was greater in Scotland, where university tuition is free, compared with England.
“The fact remains that the current finance system is an incredibly good deal for students – as they, pleasingly, recognise in ever greater numbers,” he said.