Higher tuition fees will be a disaster for social inclusion, researchers will tell a conference today.
Working-class students recognise that cheaper degrees from new universities are worth less in the job market, but they are restricted to studying there because they are unwilling to take on large debts, according to a study by Louise Archer, senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies at London Metropolitan University, and colleagues.
Dr Archer told The THES : "If people have to pay more anyway and come out of higher education with a huge debt and a degree of less value, then I cannot see why that would be an incentive to enter higher education at all.
"Even if they are paying afterwards, working-class groups will be deterred because the risks are higher and they don't have the same safety net as the middle classes. People talk about how, if they fail, the whole family fails. Top-up fees would increase the gap."
The researchers questioned hundreds of working-class students and found that they felt excluded from the "best" institutions for a combination of reasons, including those universities' cultures, the higher costs associated with travel and living away from home and the universities'
narrow entry criteria.
However, while respondents positively valued "local" new universities, they also recognised that these institutions had fewer resources and their degrees commanded a lesser value in the job market.
The researchers argue that top-up fees will reinforce these inequalities and discourage working-class students from applying both to local and best universities.
The findings will be presented to today's "From mass to universal higher education: building on experience" conference at London Metropolitan.
They also form the basis of a book, Higher Education and Social Class: Issues of Exclusion and Inclusion , by Louise Archer, Merryn Hutchings and Alistair Ross, published this month by RoutledgeFalmer.