As the Government gets set to publish its review of post-18 education and funding, Ruby Nightingale looks at the Sutton Trust’s key post-18 education policy recommendations and what we think the priorities of the review should be.

The review of post-18 education and funding, announced by the Government last February, is a great opportunity for the government to look at removing the barriers to accessing education, both in traditional academic routes as well as in technical and vocational education. We hope that the government takes this review as a chance to develop a high quality post-18 education system that is accessible to all, regardless of background.


Growing concerns around the costs of higher education are clear. Nearly half of young people say they are worried about the cost of higher education, with these concerns particularly pronounced among young people from the poorest backgrounds. The rise in tuition fees and the decision to turn maintenance grants into loans has created a funding system in which students from the poorest backgrounds graduate with the highest levels of debt, which is something that the Trust is keen to see reversed.

Restoring maintenance grants should be a key priority of the panel and we hope that they are restored to at least the pre-2016 level. Even without including tuition fees, students currently face an average of £19,200 in maintenance debt. Restoring these grants would both provide support for those who need it most and reduce the debt burden for the least well-off.

A major, and highly contested, part of post-18 funding is the tuition fees system. While reports indicate a decrease in tuition fees to £6,500 is a likely outcome, the Trust believes that cuts to tuition fees should be targeted at those who need it most. The Trust supports a system of targeted tuition fee reductions for the least well-off, so that the income of a student’s family is taken into consideration – creating a system that fairly reflects a student’s circumstances.

Students in households in the lowest 40% of earners currently take on average debts of £51,600, compared to £38,400 in the top 20% of households. Introducing a system of targeted fee reductions could cut average student debt in half, and reduce debt for the poorest 40% to £12,700. While higher fees and higher loans were previously attractive to the government as such loans were excluded from the deficit, this will no longer fully be the case. This reduces the upfront cost of targeted fee reductions, while potentially reducing the proportion of graduates not fully repaying their loans from 81% to 56%.

Part-time study

Part-time and mature study are important vehicles for social mobility, opening up access to higher education for those whose work or family responsibilities make full-time study impractical, or those who may have not followed the traditional route from school. Worryingly, our research has documented a huge decline in mature and part-time study in recent years. Between 2010 and 2015, the numbers of part-time students decreased by 51% nationally, by 63% at the Open University and by 45% at other UK universities and FE colleges.

We would like the review to recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to student finance, and that the mature and part-time sector requires tailored solutions. One option would be to give students who are eligible for the new part-time maintenance loan the option of a tuition fee grant for the first two years of their course, instead of having to take out a maintenance loan. This would come at a low or zero additional cost per student, but begin to address the debt aversion issue that is particularly acute for this group.


It is crucial that the review considers the options for young people who do not want to go to university. While we welcome the Government’s focus on apprenticeships, there is much more to be done to ensure that all apprenticeships are of good quality, have opportunity for progression and that there are many more higher and degree level apprenticeships available for young people.


The proportion of young people who think it’s important to go to university is at its lowest since 2010, with interest in completing an apprenticeship rising substantially over the last four years. Despite this interest, the number of degree and higher level apprenticeships available remains disappointingly low, with fewer than 10,000 higher apprenticeships started by under 25s each year, compared with over 300,000 school leavers starting at university each year in England. Much more needs to be done to increase the number of higher and degree level apprenticeships targeted at younger age groups to provide an alternative to traditional degree courses.

Quality & progression

Disadvantaged young people are less likely to do advanced apprenticeships and just 1 in 4 young apprentices progress from a level 2 to level 3 – the equivalent of GCSE to A level. We would like to see seamless and automatic progression between levels, particularly from level 2 to level 3. Addressing this progression issue as well as ensuring the quality of such qualifications would go some way to address the negative perceptions among parents and teachers that are often associated with apprenticeships. But it is vital that the review seeks to support a greater parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes to ensure a post-18 system that provides the training needed by a modern workforce.

The Government has the opportunity with this review to make a real difference to social mobility by improving the quality of and access to a range of post-18 education routes. When the outcomes of the review are published in the coming weeks, it is essential that increasing opportunities and widening access are not jeopardised, but in fact placed at the heart of the post-18 education system.

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