As Lord Browne of Madingley nears the point of reporting, the review of higher education funding is expected to include the controversial recommendation that tuition fees be allowed to rise.
One feature of the multifaceted debate over tuition fees has been the suggestion that higher costs will put off students from poorer backgrounds. But a review of the evidence on how changes in tuition fees impact participation decisions of students is revealing.
As part of the build-up to the Browne review, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills commissioned a number of studies to consider the 2004-06 reforms, with a particular focus on impacts resulting from the raising of the fees cap to £3,000 in 2006.
Work from the Institute of Fiscal Studies examined the overall impact on those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with increases in fees estimated to reduce participation, but loans counteracting this to a large extent.
The contribution of the University of Westminster’s Centre for Employment Research describes the continued and steady upward trend in the proportion of students from less affluent areas going into English higher education institutions over the period of the reform.
Furthermore, recent work from the Institute of Education suggests that the majority of any differences in higher education participation rates between different socio-economic groups are determined early in school careers, rather than being the result of barriers, such as fees, at the point of entering higher education.
All the evidence points to the fact that a further rise in tuition fees, paid following graduation via income-contingent loans, would not be a major factor determining participation among less-advantaged groups.
However, this is not particularly comforting given that any recent advances in the widening of participation are set against a backdrop of rising educational inequalities during the 1980s and 1990s, and continuing concerns that, on a variety of measures, very few of the socially disadvantaged go to university.
While a rise in fees may not have a particularly negative impact, the more pertinent question is this: what would have a positive impact on the rates of participation of those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds?
Some institutions have begun to act on the evidence from studies that show educational inequalities being determined early in schooling. This has, of course, raised alarm among a number of commentators, as some universities have allowed lower entry grades for children from poorly performing schools.
The key issue here would seem to be whether such decisions are carried out on a case-by-case basis. It would seem reasonable that students who show promise in an interview or other process that attempted to get behind paper qualifications should have a more favourable offering, whatever their social background. But these processes raise the cost of selection for each and every additional student.
When we also consider the fact that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have much higher rates of dropout from higher education, institutions – which at present tend to lose money on much of their undergraduate offerings – have little incentive to widen participation. The financial incentives that aim to counteract these increased costs are relatively modest.
In such an environment, an increase in the value to an institution of each and every student would justify both the increased search costs involved in finding those who possess the talent but not the paper qualifications to thrive at university, and also offset the increased risk that such students will not complete their studies.
Many will point out that such an increase in value (ie, funding) could be provided in ways other than fees, but this misses the main point of this debate. The measures described here are only sticking plasters and they do not tackle the root cause of the problem.
Kids who grow up in disadvantaged environments have lower levels of achievement at secondary level. Some of this may be due to a lack of aspirations. Making the delivery of undergraduate education more financially rewarding for universities would encourage many new and existing institutions to expand their offering and work harder to attract students who would not normally see university as a viable option.
However, much of the differences in attainment arise because children from lower socio-economic backgrounds attend schools where they receive a lower standard of secondary-level education. At present the public monies that go to support undergraduate education in England represent a subsidy to those from higher socio-economic groups, as their children go to university and benefit from the returns.
Charging this higher socio-economic group more for the privilege of going to university, and freeing up resources to tackle educational inequalities at an earlier stage, would seem to be the only long-term solution in the widening participation debate. However, it is unlikely that columnists in the popular press will take up the cause.
Full coverage of the Browne review
Full coverage of Lord Browne’s findings will appear on Times Higher Education online at 7am on Tuesday 12 October.