The Conservative government has argued in favour of tuition fees and student loans. It confidently declared that neither the abolition of undergraduate grants – which happened in 2016 – nor the proposed rise of full-time undergraduate tuition fees to £9,250 later this year will deter disadvantaged students from going to university.
But our recently published research shows this is actually not the case. It seems a “fear of debt” is a significant deterrent for many students who are taking A-levels and are wondering whether to go to university. And this is particularly the case for those students from poorer backgrounds.
As part of our research, we surveyed just more than 1,000 17 to 21-year-olds in England in 2002 and then just under 1,500 in 2015. All were studying towards university entry level qualifications in state and independent schools and at further education colleges.
We found that debt aversion has increased both among working-class and middle-class students – with about a third of students surveyed in 2015 strongly agreeing with the statement: “I would worry a lot if I ever got into debt.”
Our research also shows that working-class young people are actually far less likely than students from other social classes to apply to university because of these debt fears.
When we compared working and upper-class students with similar GCSE results, taking account of differences in gender, ethnicity and type of school attended, we found that a lower percentage of working-class students had applied to university compared with those from an upper class background because of these fears.
Reliant on loans
The study I undertook with my colleague Geoff Mason, looks at changes in prospective students’ attitudes towards student loan debt between 2002 and 2015 – a period that saw a big change in the way universities are funded.
During this time, more of the costs of going to university shifted from taxpayers onto students and their families – driven by an ideological quest for greater “marketisation” and a growing belief that “who benefits from higher education pays”.
This saw undergraduate tuition fees increase by 553% – after allowing for inflation – while median household incomes grew by only 3% and earnings stagnated.
As a result, students have become far more reliant on loans if they want to go to university. By 2015, 93% of undergraduates took out a loan for tuition and 89% for maintenance.
What all this means, is that under the current system an ever greater proportion of disadvantaged young people may be be deterred from gaining a university education.
This is because many potential students, especially from the poorest backgrounds, do not see the loans offered as affordable – or as a safety net against an uncertain future. This is despite understanding that their loan repayments will be linked to their earnings on graduation.
Since maintenance grants for low-income groups were abolished in 2016, students have had to take out even larger loans to replace their lost income from grants.
Government figures also suggest that the poorest 40% of students can now expect to leave university with the largest debts of £58,815. And the forthcoming rise in tuition fees and the abolition of NHS bursaries for nurses and others last year will only worsen the situation.
The squeezed middle
So-called middle income groups – which covers people whose parents are in clerical, sales, service and technical occupations – have been particularly squeezed due to restrictions on grant eligibility and limited access to university financial support. In many of these families, there is also a lack of spare parental disposable income to compensate for these losses.
The current government argues that student loans broaden and equalise university opportunities. But as our research shows, the reality is that socioeconomic inequalities in access to higher education persist. The current system disproportionately limits opportunities for young people from low-income backgrounds.
So if the current government does care about social mobility and those who are “just about managing”, it needs to rethink its policies urgently. Maybe then the election pledges to abolish tuition fees altogether or change them are at least a step in the right direction.