V-c says poor are put off by upfront burden but are not debt-averse

January 23, 2004

Labour MPs' fears that aversion to debt will deter children from poor families from going to university are groundless, according to Gordon Marshall, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading.

Professor Marshall, a sociologist whose research is on the UK class system, said last week: "Good social science shows that paying upfront for higher education, the system we now have, is a disincentive.

"But working-class families are not debt-averse. My parents bought their council house on a mortgage, and so did plenty of other people."

Instead, Professor Marshall said, poor families avoided risk rather than debt.

"When people who could become doctors become nurses, or people who could go to university start a modern apprenticeship at 16, they are applying sophisticated reasoning in opting for something familiar but which is recognised as an achievement in their community," he said.

Professor Marshall said that the proposals in the higher education bill were likely to attract more people from modest backgrounds because they defer repayments, set them at an affordable level and do not link repayments to the amount borrowed.

He said: "Especially when there are maintenance awards and bursaries for poorer students, that changes the risk perception completely.

"This is far more acceptable than shrinking the sector to match the available funds, which is what the Conservatives suggest. I doubt that they will continue with that policy because it is elitist and wrong for the country.

"And there are so many claims on general taxation that the Liberal Democrat idea of paying for university expansion that way is a luxury."

Professor Marshall said that the measures in the bill ought to be backed up with more support for the Aimhigher scheme, under which thousands of schoolchildren who might not otherwise have thought of university have spent time on the Reading campus.

He said: "The bill is not perfect, but it is a substantial step in the right direction. This university has a turnover of about £130 million, and we think that these proposals would bring in about another £13 million.

"Even after paying out more in bursaries, this money would allow us to tackle the maintenance backlog on our estate. At the moment, our two main activities, teaching and research, run at a loss. We do not generate enough cash to perpetuate the institution."

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