Widening gap: How rising tuition fees will hold back poorer students

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Clare Patterson
Writer

For the first time since 2012, universities in England have begun to increase their fees above the £9,000 threshold introduced by the coalition government. Universities including Manchester and Durham have increased their 2017/18 fees to £9,250, following the introduction of measures which allow Universities meeting expectations under the new Teaching Excellence Framework to increase their fees from September 2017. According to the government, ‘The teaching excellence framework will allow universities to maintain fees in line with inflation only if they meet a quality bar’.

The Conservative rhetoric of promoting teaching excellence and adjusting fees in line with market inflation masks the seemingly obvious real-world effect of these changes; if university is more expensive, fewer people from low-income backgrounds will attend. The fact that the number of students attending university did not drop after the 2012 fee increase is touted as evidence that higher fees are no barrier to a university education; what is not reported alongside this fact is that the percentage of students coming from state schools did decrease, from 66 to 62% the year tuition fees were hiked.

This increase in fees, alongside the replacement of maintenance grants with loans announced earlier this year, means students enrolling from this year onwards will be leaving university with larger and larger debts, with some owning up to £61,000. Those in favour of this increase in fees would point out that none of this debt will be required to be repaid until students are earning over £21,000, meaning that it only has to be paid by those for whom university has been a good investment (this threshold has recently been frozen by new government legislation so that it – unlike tuition fees – will not increase in line with inflation).

But the figure owed upon completion of a university education – currently an average of £44,035, and set to rise in the coming years –  looks very different to someone with a parent who makes that figure in a year than it does to someone whose family has never seen that much money in their life.

To a person who comes from a family expecting and encouraging higher education, who expects a high-income career like their parents, a figure like this looks like a sound investment; to someone whose parents never went to university, and who doesn’t have the connections to land themselves a graduate job or the savings to afford an unpaid internship, this debt can look more like a lifetime burden, a figure that will have to be shouldered for the next 30 years of their life, potentially with little long-term economic reward.

It can be tempting to believe that these policies are a deliberate, targeted attack on working-class education – since the election of the coalition government in 2010, government higher education policies have continuously increased the cost of university in one way or another. I’m not sure the reasoning behind these policies is anywhere near as calculated. Much was made of the resignation of David Cameron, and of Boris Johnson’s refusal to run for Prime Minister, with some touting this as the end of an era of politics lead by a small, Eton-educated clique. Current Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson, brother of Boris, is of course also Eton and Oxbridge educated.

With a cabinet like this, I find it soberingly likely that Johnson, Theresa May and others genuinely believe in the effectiveness of these policies; that the influence of the free market will help maintain and increase teaching standards through competition; that anyone choosing a university will see a high price tag as a sound investment, that financial value may in fact be the best way to measure the quality of a university’s teaching. When all your school-age peers believed they were entitled to a Russell Group education – and had the money to pay for it – it may be genuinely impossible to understand how many communities there are in Britain where people just don’t go to uni, where such an ambition is just not available to them.

Much as Conservatives (and some Liberals) may like to believe otherwise, there are many, many people who made the decision not to go to university precisely because of the trebling of tuition fees. There are many, many people who, this year, because of the replacement of maintenance grants with loans – despite the fact that their dream career, which they have strived towards for years, and in which they would shine, requires a degree – have decided not to go to university. And over the coming years, as the price of a university education creeps up and up, there will be thousands more who decide that higher education just isn’t for them.