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Opinion: Cutting tuition fees may not be the best way to help students

Opinion: Cutting tuition fees may not be the best way to help students
The idea that reducing the university tuition fee threshold of £9,000 would encourage students from deprived backgrounds to apply always seemed fanciful

How we fund universities and how we fund young people to go to them is one of the most reliably emotive issues in British politics. Seemingly, every new government feels the need to revisit how public sector funding, loans, tuition fees, debt and grants are balanced.

But it’s not just ministers. Depending on your political beliefs and your personal history, you can have wildly differing views about who should fund who to go to university – and what they should study once they get there.

This is a neverending row about who benefits most from our largely excellent university sector. Is it the students themselves because they benefit from better paid jobs in – theoretically – more satisfying careers? Is it employers who benefit from a conveyor belt of clever young graduates hungry to increase profits and drive corporate innovation? Or is it society as a whole that benefits from a better educated workforce, which, from healthcare assistants through to astrophysics professors, collectively improves the human condition?

In truth, of course, it is all three – but getting the balance right is what makes it such a perennial red button issue. That and the question of whether we should, as a country, simply embrace the idea of undergraduate study being a force for good in and of itself, or whether we should judge certain courses (engineering, say) to be of greater value than others (jewellery design, for example).

These are the questions that pushed Theresa May to commission the Augar review of higher education in 2016, which in turn recommended that annual tuition fees be cut from their current levels of £9,250 to £7,500. The government has – astonishingly – still failed to formally respond with proposals to this report, something we’re expecting, finally, imminently.

One of the reasons that Augar argued for the cut was, of course, that it would ease the financial pressure on young people thinking about going to university, especially those from deprived homes, who, it was assumed, were being put off by the threat of debt. Certainly, the commission offered other arguments in its favour too – it would give the government the levers to force universities to focus on its favoured subjects such as science and maths.

Setting that to one side, the idea that the proposed cut would somehow tempt more teenagers from poor backgrounds to fill out their Ucas forms always seemed fanciful – and so it seems in practice. Applications from all socio-economic groups have continued to climb. In recent focus groups I have run, while a reduction of the kind on the table is welcomed, it does not look like it would make a meaningful difference. Thousands of pounds of debt is still thousands of pounds of debt.

Student tuition fee protesters hit London streets

Indeed, interestingly, acceptance of tuition fees as a concept appears to be on the rise among students and nearly-students. Recent opinion research carried out by Public First, where I am a director, for the All Party Parliamentary Universities Group found that while, perhaps unsurprisingly, if you ask young people about tuition fees, they’d overwhelmingly rather they weren’t charged, the strength of that feeling was rather softer than one might have imagined. Indeed, many do see that it is perhaps a little odd to expect those who don’t go to university to pay through their taxes for those who do. It is now getting on for a decade since the £9,000 threshold was introduced and, seemingly, the idea, while not welcome, is now seen as par for the course.

What does animate young people, however, is the affordability of undergraduate study in the here and now. Being able to put food on the table and pay the rent as an undergraduate is a huge factor in how they pick study options after they’ve left school. It influences what they study and where they go to study it. Fear of cashflow closes off options.

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In the words of one 18-year-old in our study: “It [the cost] definitely made me want to stay at home because it’s less debt. That was probably one of the main reasons I’m not moving out to be honest.”

Our polling found that while 18 per cent of middle class teenagers planned to stay at home to go to university, the figure was significantly higher, at 34 per cent, for those who had been eligible for free school meals.

If ministers really do want to encourage young people to go to university and to broaden their horizons by heading away to do so, then mucking around with tuition fees is unlikely to be the answer. The answer surely lies in maintenance grants. Abolished by George Osborne as “unaffordable” in 2016, means-tested grants for young people could make a meaningful difference to many if they were reinstated. It should hardly need saying, but making undergraduate study more affordable now, opens it up as an option to many more students.

The cost of living is about to become a red-hot issue for normal people everywhere. And that includes students. Let’s stop worrying about tuition fees that will or won’t be paid off in the future and make sure young people believe they can afford to study for a degree in the here and now.

Ed Dorrell is a director at Public First