October 15, 2010 • 2:06 pm

The claim: “countries with higher fees and a decent loan system to support them have higher participation from the lowest-income quartile socio-economic group” – Elizabeth Truss MP, backed by Vince Cable, Business Secretary.

Background

Full Fact flagged up this claim when it was first made during the vigorous Commons debate over Lord Browne’s report on university funding.

The “international evidence” which Ms Truss was referring to consisted of purported university participation rates from the lowest quartile of 50 per cent in the USA and 30 per cent in Australia (each of which have a high fees system), compared with only 17 per cent in the UK.

Analysis

According to Ms Truss’s office, these figures were lifted from a report for the think tank Reform, co-authored by the MP herself.

Reform’s report referred us to a report by Centre Forum, which in turn referred us to a 2003 publication from Policy Exchange.

But here the think tank carousel comes to an abrupt stop and the trail goes dry: after a thorough reading of Policy Exchange’s ‘Reclaiming Our Universities’ [not available electronically], Full Fact is convinced that it gives no breakdowns of university participation by family income for any of the three countries.

So where could these mercurial statistics have come from?

We have contacted Centre Forum for elucidation, but meanwhile our own searches have yielded only limited results.

For US rates of entry to university, we were helpfully directed to a document produced by the USA’s National Science Foundation by Full Fact reader Alex Steer.

The lowest socio-econoic category is masured here as a quintile rather than a quartile, and it should be born in mind that enrolment rates are not the only way of measuring university participation.

Nevertheless, rates of over 50 per cent in the US for each of the most recent six years measured do lend credence to Ms Truss’s data.

In the UK, however, neither UCAS nor the Higher Education Standards Authority (HESA) compile data for university entrants by income, and we have been unable to locate any source that does.

Figures from Australia too have been hard to find.

Policy Exchange’s report does reproduce data on students from “low SES backgrounds”, but it does not specify what “low SES backgrounds” signifies, and the percentages are low-income students as a percentage of all students, rather than as a percentage of low-income school graduates.

By this measure – which is not the one used by Ms Truss and Mr Cable – participation from low-income groups stayed almost completely static after variable fees were introduced in the late 1980s.

These figures also raise another important issue: they run only until 1998, and if the numbers cited in Parliament were somehow derived from the 2003 study, most of them are likely to be at least ten years out-of-date.

Given that top-up fees were introduced in the UK in 2006, the relevance of ten-year-old comparisons between the UK, Australia and the USA is questionable.

The Parliamentary Question posed by Ms Truss recognises the USA and Australia as “ countries with higher fees and a decent loan system”, without considering that the UK could fall into this category.

This does not square with the OECD’s categorisation: according to their recent report ‘Education at a Glance’, all three countries adhere to the model of “high levels of tuition fees and well-developed student support systems”.

In fact, both fees and loans are higher in the UK than either of the other countries for public universities, while the USA spends substantially more as a proportion of GDP in direct state subsidies.

So even if these figures were accurate and up-to-date, it is not at all clear that they would, as the Business Secretary suggested, prove grounds for an “evidence-based” decision to raise fees.

Conclusion

Full Fact has not found enough comparable data to judge whether foreign examples suggest that raising fees and strengthening financial support would promote social mobility.

But given the lack of conclusive evidence from the USA and Australia, we cannot adjudge Ms Truss’s claim accurate.

This is partly because the data to which she referred has proved impossible to trace to its source, and partly because it is dated.

But there is also a broader question, given the OECD’s judgement that the three countries compared here have similar systems already, over whether it is reasonable to contrast the UK with Australia and the USA in the first place.

It is crucial that claims presented in Parliamentary Questions conform to a higher standard of accuracy and transparency than this.

If Mr Cable is indeed taking “international evidence” into account in forming Government policy on this divisive issue, Full Fact can only hope that it is more reliable and substantial than the evidence posed in Ms Truss’s question.

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