Payback Time?

Report Overview

In 2012, the government changed how higher education is funded in England. It no longer provides money directly to universities in the form of teaching grants (except for more expensive courses). To make up for this, universities can charge students substantially higher tuition fees. Students are entitled to take out a government-backed loan, which they do not have to repay until after graduation. However, due to the higher fees, students requiring loans must now borrow substantially larger amounts. Real interest rates were also added to these loans, but the threshold for repayments was also increased to £21,000 a year. This report commissioned from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) examines the financial implications of the 2012 reforms for graduates. In particular, the authors calculate the differences between graduating under the new 2012–13 system and the old 2011–12 system. The changes made to the size and terms of student loans are key to understanding the impact of the 2012 reforms both on average and for different types of graduates.

Key Findings

All 44 of the students on the Academic Apprentices programme received at least one offer from a Russell Group university compared to fewer than three-quarters of students in a control group.

Less than a quarter of the 44 students’ personal statements were awarded the same grade when read by both teacher and admissions tutor: 20 statements were one grade different, 13 statements were two grades different and one statement was three grades different. Commenting on the same extract from one student’s personal statement, a teacher thought it “showed clear enthusiasm for Law” whilst the admissions tutor found it have an “empty opening statement” and noted that its “weak attempt to define Law wastes space and provides no useful information about the applicant”.

The comparison suggests that the advice and guidance that some young people receive at school when composing their personal statement may not reflect the content and style expected by admissions tutors. Those from more advantaged educational backgrounds are more likely to receive higher quality support.


1. Universities should be more transparent about how specific subject departments use and evaluate personal statements. This information should be shared widely, and effectively, with applicants, schools and teachers.
2. Sections of detailed analysis and reflection in personal statements are highly valued by academics. Schools should support applicants in providing opportunities to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities.
3. Schools and colleges need to improve the quality of staff training to ensure that key messages are consistent and based on up to date guidelines.
4. Both universities and UCAS should consider whether the format of the personal statement could be improved to ensure it is a useful and fair indicator of an applicant’s potential.