Widening access to university entrenches social class attitudes to student debt

Students take to the streets. Andy Rain/EPA

There are class tensions existing very close to the surface of the government’s policy to increase the number of students from disadvantaged areas going to university. New data shows that the number of first-time undergraduates coming from lower-class backgrounds was at 32.3% in 2012-13 – the highest level recorded. The data, released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, also shows that 89.3% of students came from state schools, and that 10.9% came from neighbourhoods less likely to participate in higher education.

No university has the choice any longer about whether or not to make available an increasing number of places for students deemed to be less likely to go to university. Without demonstrable progress against some fairly easy-to-grasp criteria, an institution runs the risk of the government removing its right to price undergraduate programmes at £9,000 per year.

In the current funding climate, universities and further education colleges now have to share a diminishing pool of £3.88 billion for 2014-15, taking the hit of an average 5.9% reduction in their teaching budgets. At the same time, the total allocated for student opportunity funding – to provide additional support to widen access to university for disabled students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds – has gone up 7.2% from 2013-14. This has been praised by the National Union of Students.

The danger here, however, is that widening participation might collapse into a bureaucratic rather than an educational exercise, in which all pretence to be genuinely embracing social mobility might be washed away by the need to tick the right boxes and to show that the right quotas have been hit.

The bottom-line calculations allowing universities to survive the harsh necessities of a retrenched public sector therefore have two distinct dimensions. They are at once both the means for universities to ensure that they remain viable business concerns and the means for students to first learn what it is to live a life in debt. Choosing to act out the former market relationships forces others to act out the latter.

Engineered for financial literacy

The new student fees regime should be seen as a relatively straightforward exercise in social engineering. Loss of faith in financial markets in the wake of the ongoing economic crisis might have been expected to lead to a change of perspective through which more and more people tried to construct their life paths with as little assimilation to finance as possible.

However, this would have translated into a reduction of the flow of savings on which functioning financial markets rely. What better way is there of ensuring that new attitudes towards finance do not undermine the reproduction of financial markets than creating a new generation of people for whom working-age life will now be dominated by trying to roll over one form of debt into another so that eventually it might all be wiped out?

Higher education is instilling into young people an approach to the future which involves calculations not about how much studying for a degree might be worth to their personal development, but about how much holding a degree certificate will be worth to their long-term labour market prospects.

Government policy documents now routinely reposition the choice to enter higher education as an investment in future enhanced earnings capacity – and the urge towards greater financial literacy is supposed to help young people see the wisdom in such a decision.

Greater financial literacy does not seem, in general, to be something to object to, as more knowledge is always likely to be better than less.

But some young people will always be better placed than others to access credit on more favourable terms. Some will have access to the “Bank of Mum and Dad” so that they can start their post-university life with a clean slate. And young people’s social background may well in any case influence the way they view the merits of debt-based investments in their future.

Different views on debt

Debt is without doubt a class issue. The historical middle-class experience of debt much more typically resonates with images of opportunities: of taking control of one’s future by using credit flows to plot a route to the reproduction of middle-class status in later life. Nothing here appears to be overtly threatening.

But the historical working-class experience of debt responds to rather different stimuli. The campaign to make credit an acceptable part of a modern financial system was one of the most important 18th-century struggles through which a series of bourgeois virtues first came to prominence within the economy.

It is arguable whether working-class communities have ever had the success of that struggle extended in their direction. Debt for them conjures images of the bailiff, of the loan shark, of the late-night escape from unpaid creditors and of the prospect of an ever-tightening spiral towards immiseration. What might look like an opportunity from one side of the class divide looks anything but from the other.

These are the barriers to social mobility that official widening participation practices have to confront. Who would want to argue against extending access to higher education across many more sections of society? Certainly not me, having been a “non-standard entrant” into higher education myself on almost all the relevant social indicators.

But when asking the subsidiary questions of “on what basis?” and “to what end?” are we widening participation to university, the picture becomes considerably murkier.

The task ahead is to find ways of making student debt much less obviously a class issue – and this means doing more than simply recycling some fee income as bursaries. The fact that payday loan companies have tried to establish a presence across UK campuses shows just how much attention needs to be paid to avoiding situations in which widening participation increases rather than reduces social vulnerabilities.