Why I...think that increased debt will discourage poorer students

February 7, 2003

Since 2000, we have been conducting a three-year study into law students' attitudes to debt. Surprisingly, the first-year data showed that, regardless of type of institution, more than 56 per cent of students would have attended the same university regardless of whether it charged top-up fees. But this tended to be because they thought they had selected the right course and, significantly, because in 68 per cent of cases, their parents were the ones paying the fees, so it meant nothing to them in financial terms.

The government's proposed increase in fees may get a similar reaction, but the overall rise in graduate debt is unlikely to be acceptable to parents or graduates.

Parents are concerned that their children see debt as a natural extension of getting what you want. And research shows that working-class and ethnic-minority families in particular are put off by the potential debt accumulated during the three years of a degree course. Students from these families are more likely to have to work through college, with a potential impact on their studies.

Moreover, although the figure of £12,000 is thought to be the current average debt on graduation, our study shows that 35 per cent of second-year students who are not paying fees anticipate debts higher than this, and 12.5 per cent envisage the figure as being above £16,000.

Will the introduction of grants help students from poor families? As 90 per cent of non fee-paying students are in debt, anything might help. It might be a way for the state to provide the sort of support that the families of such students cannot afford to give. Only 25 per cent of students in our survey who did not pay fees receive any regular financial support from their parents.

When asked in the second year of the project whether having to pay fees made them think of themselves as consumers of higher education, 49 per cent of students felt that it did, against 42 per cent in the first year.

Student comments quoted in the study should disturb the government. There was an obvious distrust of an older generation who had received higher education "as a right" but who had now singled out the present generation as the one that should have to pay for the "privilege of studying for the benefit of society".

The students also felt that they were paying for the full cost of their higher education. In comparison, the terminology of the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme makes clear to students the reality of the situation. The Australian experience of charging differential fees for courses since 1997 has not had a detrimental affect on student recruitment.

Law, for example, sits beside medicine in the highest band for fees, and yet the number of students enrolling to study law has doubled in the past decade.

However, even though law is placed in the highest fee bracket because of potential earnings, law courses are in the lowest cluster in terms of funding.

In the UK, many universities use law to bolster poor recruitment in other subjects, and with the removal of the maximum aggregate student number, the number of law students has increased.

Under the proposals in the white paper, it will be left to individual universities to decide the course-fee level up to a ceiling of £3,000. Law could be put in the position where it continues to be underfunded because of internal politics even though it brings in more money. This is something that the professional legal bodies could have a view about.

A report on the Law Student 2000 three-year study, funded by the UK Centre for Legal Education, will be published in the summer.

Mike Cuthbert
University College

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