Tuition fees: widening access to higher education?

22 July 2010

Business Secretary Vince Cable's advocacy of a 'graduate tax' as a possible replacement for tuition fees and the reported volte face by the Government yesterday has reignited the debate on university funding.

At the heart of the issue is the question of how to properly fund higher education whilst simultaneously achieving the Government's stated desire to widen access amongst poorer students.

Whether or not these goals can be achieved under the present system is a matter of some controversy.

The claim:

The Director of the Reform think tank, Andrew Haldenby, this morning defended the record of tuition fees.

He told the Today programme's Evan Davis that "during the period of tuition fees there has been an increase in participation from kids from poorer backgrounds."

Such an argument apparently rejects many of the objections that have been raised to tuition fees.

Former National Union of Students (NUS) President Gemma Tumelty, for example, has claimed that "survey after survey has pointed to the fact that it tends to be the students from poorer backgrounds who are more likely to be put off [university] by high levels of debt."

So can a link between tuition fees and widening participation legitimately be drawn?

Rising participation:

Evidence for increasing participation in higher education amongst young people from poorer backgrounds is not thin on the ground.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) publish statistics tracking the proportion of young people participating in full time Higher Education.

These show that between 2003 and 2009 the proportion of 18-20 year olds from richer backgrounds has fallen by four per cent, whilst participation amongst poorer households has risen by 1.9 per cent. There remains a 20.2 per cent gap in participation rates between the socio-economic groups.

These trends are seemingly confirmed by a study conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

It found that higher education participation rates in the most disadvantaged areas of the country had increased from 14 to 19 per cent between 2003 and 2010, with participation in the richest locales also increasing from 54 to 57 per cent over the same period.

So can we agree with Mr Haldenby that tuition fees have been a success in widening participation?

The impact of tuition fees:

As is often the case, Mr Haldenby's claim needs to be put in some context.

A spokesperson for the higher education applications body UCAS told Full Fact that the increase in higher education participation amongst poorer students isn't necessarily linked to tuition fees.

"The number of students applying to university from poorer backgrounds has been rising steadily from a very low base for decades, as the number of universities and degree courses has increased.

"We're talking of a much wider social phenomenon than simply a response to changes in university funding," he said.

Indeed the NUS has gone one step further, arguing that participation rates amongst poorer socio-economic groups has risen in spite, rather than because of tuition fees.

"If you look at the years in which tuition fees and top-up fees were introduced [1998 and 2003 respectively]," a spokesperson told Full Fact "the proportion of poorer students applying to higher education actually fell."

And whilst HEFCE data confirms this claim, it is also worth noting that the same is true for the student applications from the most advantaged areas, as the graph below demonstrates:

Funding access programmes:

Nor does the debate end there.

Full Fact contacted Universities UK, the group that represents the interests of higher education institutions, who supported a link between tuition fees and widening access.

A spokesperson said: "Much of the credit for the increased numbers attending universities from poorer backgrounds needs to be attributed to the universities themselves, and the outreach and access programmes they run.

"These wouldn't have been possible without the increase in funding brought about by tuition fees and top-up fees," he added.

This was a point tacitly acknowledged by former NUS President Wes Streeting, who acknowledged in 2009 that "universities have to be given adequate funding if we are to continue… to give those from poorer backgrounds the opportunity to fulfil their potential."


Whilst the changes to the higher education system over the past few decades make any causal analysis of widening access to university difficult, the fact that participation rates for students from poorer backgrounds have indeed increased since 1999 makes Mr Haldenby's statement hard to refute entirely.

There does seem to be some agreement that university outreach programmes have been important factors in attracting students from disadvantaged areas, and indeed a good deal of consensus that the funding tuition fees has provided has been beneficial to this drive.

However as Mr Cable's comments last week indicate, tuition fees are not the only means of funding higher education under consideration, and their use in widening participation remains a highly contentious issue.  

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