Tackling a poor show

December 5, 2003

Will underprivileged students benefit from new government proposals? asks Jo Blanden

"Education must be a force for opportunity and social justice, not for the entrenchment of privilege." This is the ringing declaration contained in the white paper on higher education, but the sheer size of the revolt against the government shows that critics inside as well as outside parliament fear that ministers' proposals will only make inequalities in higher education worse.

The white paper points clearly to the striking gap in university participation between those from different backgrounds. In the late 1990s, about 70 per cent of young people with parents who were professionals were attending university, compared with 15 per cent of those whose parents were unskilled or partly skilled.

Even more startling is the fact that students from poorer groups benefited so little from the huge post-1960s expansion of university places. Our research at the Centre for Economic Performance shows that the proportion of young people from the richest 20 per cent of families going to university increased from 20 per cent in the 1970s to almost 50 per cent today. In contrast, the numbers going to university from the poorest 20 per cent of families rose only from 6 to 9 per cent over the same period. In short, social inequalities in higher education have grown sharply since 1970.

Why? The Department for Education and Skills highlights the "poverty in aspirations" and the failure of those from lower social classes to take and get the required A levels. The government's hope is that its improvements in compulsory education and initiatives to inform those from poorer backgrounds of the benefits of higher education, such as Aim Higher, will steadily feed through the system.

While these intentions are laudable, the role of finance should not be downplayed. As governments took one step after another to erode the financial help available to students in higher education, inequality in participation widened. The means-tested maintenance grant was reduced, frozen and then eliminated altogether, being replaced by loans as the main form of student support. Then the principle of student contributions was established, with all but the poorest students now paying fees.

Those in favour of raising fees and making students pay more argue that, larger student loans having replaced grants, all students can borrow the money they need to go to university, paying it back only once their subsequent earnings have reached a given level. This, they argue, makes higher education once again free at the point of delivery and makes young people independent of their families' finances at 18.

But there are many reasons why increased fees are likely to deter poorer students. The government line is that students should appreciate that a degree is worth the £20,000 investment they are being asked to make.

But this depends on the information available to prospective applicants.

Even in the new system, richer parents will help with living costs and repayments, thus raising the relative costs for those from families where this is impossible. Also, surveys suggest that those from poorer families are most strongly resistant to the idea of entering into substantial debt.

All these worries are magnified, if, as many believe, the £3,000 limit is a precursor for much larger fee rises at a later date.

Against these risks, the government initially suggested two lines of attack: grants for poorer students and an access regulator to improve the social mix of university students.

Now the dissent of Labour MPs is bringing concessions from the government, such as writing off debt after 25 years. In addition, some universities are offering bursaries to poorer students to supplement government grants.

These could provide attractive incentives for poorer students, and their promotion appears to be an area where the access regulator could really make a difference.

The British higher education system has a poor record in widening participation. Changes in the education system in the last quarter of a century led precisely to an "entrenchment of privilege". The white paper appeared set to continue this trend, but recent concessions indicate that the government may be beginning to listen to some of its critics' fears.

Jo Blanden is a research officer at the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. The views expressed here are her own.

For further information, visit http://cep.lse.ac.uk/people/bio.asp?id=686 .

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