Will Hutton, an Observer columnist who is also principal of Hertford College, Oxford, said reducing the standard £9,000 undergraduate tuition fee by two-thirds to pre-2012 levels would significantly help to increase the number of poorer students at university.
Writing in his new book, How Good We Can Be: Ending the Mercenary Society and Building a Great Country, Hutton argues that “university access is improving, but only desperately slowly”.
“One obvious means to persuade kids from poorer homes to apply to university would be to universalise and standardise the patchwork quilt of access agreement rebates into a standard lower fee for disadvantaged applicants of, say, £3,000,” writes Mr Hutton in the book.
Mr Hutton is writing in a personal capacity, but has also led a Sutton Trust-backed commission looking into the impact of £9,000 tuition fees since 2012.
That commission has highlighted some of the negatives consequences of increasing fees three years ago, warning of the impacts on mature students and on working-class male students in particular.
In his new book, Mr Hutton also claims the introduction of £9,000 fees is likely to deter many students from applying to university in the near future, despite applications bouncing back strongly after a slump in 2012.
He says that students have not been put off because the prospect of repaying about £45,000 in debt “seems very distant in faraway adulthood”.
“The reality – a large debt, owed at high, real interest rates, which with the effect of compound interest will grow bewilderingly quickly – only sets in after university,” he says.
“As the experience bites, the news of the onerousness of the new system will start to spread.”
In his latest analysis of Britain’s “desperately unequal and unfair society”, Mr Hutton hits out at a “massive squandering of talent”, stating that 80,000 15-year-olds receive free school meals a year, but only 20 will go on to study at the University of Oxford.