Carl Cullinane on what this week’s new Sutton Trust/Ipsos MORI polling of school pupils could tell us about future university access.

Access to Higher Education has dramatically returned to the national consciousness in recent months, with the Labour Party’s manifesto commitment to the abolition of tuition fees generating an intense debate, both during the election campaign and in its aftermath. The debate has many dimensions, including ethical questions of whether higher education should be treated as a universal public good like healthcare, or whether the current fees system is indicative of a wider fracture in the social contract between generations.

But the focus is most frequently on practical questions; whether free fees are truly the best answer to solving the problem of unequal access (with Scotland offered as a counterexample), and whether it is a sensible use of the limited resources available for public education. Others have focused instead at the level of debt  generated by the current system, including Sutton Trust research which pointed out that English students face some of the highest tuition fees and debt levels in the world, and, more recently, concerns raised earlier this week by one of the architects of the 2006 tuition fee system.

This is the context then, that sees this week’s release of the Trust’s annual university aspirations polling. Since 2003, the Sutton Trust has polled on the higher education expectations and attitudes of young people in schools, taking in four governments and three tuition fee regimes. The resulting patterns over these 15 years are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Proportion of young people in England and Wales likely to attend higher education, 2003-2017

The initial fees increase under the Labour government to £3,000 seems to not have had an effect on the intentions of young people, with the numbers expecting to attend university rising substantially from 71% in 2006 to a high of 81% in 2012. However, this trend has since reversed, with the proportion of young people intending to attend university since tuition fees were raised to £9,000 dropping by seven percentage points to 74% this year, the lowest figure we have recorded since 2009. Whilst more young people are currently entering university since the lifting of the student cap, it is nonetheless concerning that expectations are dropping amongst future cohorts. Particularly significant is the drop in those who say they are ‘very likely’ to go into higher education when they are older, from 41% in 2009 to 36% over the last few years and down to 33% today, the lowest figure in 15 years of polling, as the proportions in this group are closer to the 37% who currently attend HE by the age of 19. While some argue that this is enough, with around 50% attending by the age of 30, the gaps in participation for the least well-off, particularly boys, cannot be ignored.

These patterns of inequality that lie beneath the headline figures are also evident in our data. Those from ‘low affluence’ households say they are 16 percentage points less likely to attend university than those from better-off backgrounds. Figure 2 also shows that more girls than boys say they’re likely to attend (77% v 70%).

Figure 2. Likely to attend university, by household background and gender.

Differences also exist by ethnic background, with Black and Asian pupils (87% and 85% respectively) substantially more likely than white pupils (72%) to say they are intending to attend university. As figure 3 shows, this gap is in fact increasing over time, and has more than doubled over the last 8 years.

Figure 3. Likely to attend university, by ethnicity, 2010-2017

Significant to the current debate on tuition fees, as the numbers planning to attend university have gone down, financial worries about the costs of higher education are going up, with just over half of young people (51%) planning to attend university worried about finance, up from 47% in 2016 and back at the highest level we have recorded.

Figure 4. Proportion of young people planning to attend university worried about the cost of higher education, 2014-2017

Older pupils are more likely to be worried, with around 60% of 15 and 16 year olds. It is also particularly pronounced for pupils from less well-off backgrounds, with 66% of such pupils worried about cost, in comparison to 46% in better-off households. This is concerning in terms of equality of access to higher education. Furthermore, of those not planning to attend university, 64% cited a financial reason, up from 57% in 2016.

It is a frequently cited statistic that disadvantaged participation in higher education has been relatively unaffected by the 2012 tuition fee rise. We are regularly told that this means we shouldn’t worry about the effect of fees on widening participation. However, this pattern doesn’t  necessarily mean that finance is not making an impact on young people’s hopes and choices. As shown in Figure 1, expectations rose substantially before the fee increase, and are rapidly heading in the wrong direction now. Professor Claire Callender has also conducted work demonstrating the level of debt aversion among young people, particularly affecting the less well-off. And this week’s Office For Fair Access report has shown that the narrowing of the socioeconomic gap in higher education attendance has flattened out in the years since 2012. In fact, a recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies demonstrated that those from less well-off backgrounds actually accrue more debt by the end of their degree. This seems entirely counter-intuitive to a more inclusive approach to higher education. While proving a counterfactual is a fool’s errand, there are reasons to believe that disadvantaged access could be higher and the socio-economic gap narrower under a less punitive system of student finance.

Whilst it is true that debt repayments over the life of a university graduate are broadly progressive, as many of graduates on lower salaries will never pay off their debts before they are written off after 25 years, it is clear from the IFS report that this does not necessarily lead to a fair distribution of the debt in the first place. Nor is it a particularly attractive incentive for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome the many other barriers they face. Particularly in the context of the changing nature of the debt incurred, with soaring interest rates, and a freeze of the repayment threshold.

This is why the Sutton Trust is arguing strongly for an urgent review of student finance in England. Means-tested fees that ease the burden on the less well-off should be accompanied by the return of maintenance grants, abolished in 2015. Additionally, there need to be more higher and advanced apprenticeships targeted at young people to offer them a genuine choice. While finance is not a panacea in itself for ensuring fair access to a higher education, it is a crucial element of the transformational change needed to improve social mobility and make good on the hopes of young people across the country.


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