The double jeopardy of fees

August 22, 1997

Concerns are voiced on the future of clinical research, the impact of fees and the need to encourage more students into independent higher education

IN 1993, the Labour higher education spokesman, Jeff Rooker, was sacked for saying that tuition fees would be necessary. Since then, politicians have maintained a conspiracy of silence and Sir Ron Dearing was left to do the job that neither the politicians nor the universities had the courage to do.

In 1963 the Robbins report proposed that "higher education should be available for all those qualified by ability and attainment to pursue it". Whether such a noble statement can hold with the introduction of tuition fees remains to be seen, but the available data for the past six years suggest some possible outcomes.

In 1991, 216,000 people were accepted as undergraduates. By 1996, this had risen by 36 per cent to around 296,000. The proportion of young people entering full-time higher education is now more than 30 per cent, compared with 20 per cent in 1991. Such an increase in participation is usually seen as a good thing, but a more considered assessment should include some measure of the profiles of those accepted.

Work at Lancaster University has looked at the geodemographic profiles of young people accepted into UK higher education. This confirms the marked tendency for universities to recruit from the more privileged groups, but more important is any change in such profiles given the growth in absolute numbers.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service data for 1991-96 was analysed using the MOSAIC geodemographics system and this reveals the very modest changes that have occurred.

Using this system, the home postcode of young undergraduates can be used to identify their origins in terms of standard typologies. For example, in 1991, 1.8 per cent of these students belonged to the group identified as "council flats". By 1996, this had risen to 2.3 per cent. Similarly, the proportion of young people from the group "low-rise council" rose from 5 to 5.7 per cent. While such changes are modest, they are encouraging.

However, there is a long way to go - after six years of expansion, the numbers of young people from a group such as "high-income families" are still more than twice what would be expected and those from "council flats" or "low-rise council" are still well under half. The numbers of young people from "families in the sky" would have to triple to attain what might be seen as equal access to higher education.

Education secretary David Blunkett has expressed concern about restricted access to higher education. However, universities are sinking further towards operating deficits, there is widespread concern about maintaining quality of provision and the phrase of the day is that the beneficiaries of higher education should pay. There is a need to balance these and other considerations.

The prospect of incurring heavy debt to finance tuition fees as well as maintenance will be a disincentive to many potential applicants, particularly those from poorer backgrounds where there is no tradition of taking a long-term view. Imposing tuition fees risks maintaining or exaggerating the skewed profile of the young undergraduate population.

The day is very close when income-contingent loans are provided to cover both maintenance and a contribution to undergraduate tuition fees. Perhaps not that far off is calculating tuition fees on a full-cost basis with respect to both subject type and institution and granting scholarships according to ability, attainment and even postcode.

The double jeopardy offered by tuition fees is a reversal of the slight but encouraging trends in participation rates among underprivileged young people, and further inadequate central funding of higher education.

David Tonks is a lecturer in marketing at the University of Lancaster.

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