A report published today by the Independent Commission on Fees shows that the number of mature students applying to study at university has fallen by 14% since the introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 in 2010.
RW Tawney, writing in the 1930s, argued for an educational system “unimpeded by the vulgar irrelevancies of class and income”. A key part of his social democratic vision was a universal university education. For him, higher education was just as important for those who were working class as it was for the upper and middle classes.
Although mature students are not all working class by any means, they do represent a far more diverse student group than their younger counterparts. The commission’s findings are therefore very concerning.
Mature students are more likely to be female, from black or ethnic backgrounds and from lower socio-economic groups and, as such, are central to attempts to improve social mobility. Over the past decade, applications from mature students increased at a higher rate than those from school leavers, making the drop since the 2010 fee increase all the more stark. Between 2005 and 2010, mature applications increased by 46.7% compared to 28.9% among young applicants. The 14% drop in mature students reported today amounts to 18,000 fewer students over the age of 20 applying for a degree.
Over the past few years, politicians from all parties have been talking about the lack of social mobility in English society and offering solutions to what is generally seen to be a growing problem. But they seem unable to recognise that policies such as the introduction of fees are exacerbating the very inequalities they are claiming to tackle. This is an issue not only of social class, but of race, ethnicity and gender too, as the profile of mature students demonstrates.
The Sutton Trust found in 2008 that aversion to debt was the major reason cited by young people for not going to university. Of those, 59% who had decided not to pursue higher education reported that avoiding debt had “much” or “very much” affected their decision. Despite claims from the government and that fear of debt would not affect decisions to attend university, this fear is still very much in evidence for those chiefly affected by austerity, and mature students are to be found disproportionately within this group. At the centre of contemporary policy is an unresolvable contradiction between advocating widening participation in higher education and funding changes that are clearly excluding mature students.
While the diminishing number of mature students is a problem across universities, it is one that disproportionately effects the elite institutions. Even in the good days of rising mature student applications, far too few of them applied for and achieved places at institutions like my own. Yet, I know from personal experience that non-traditional students gain enormously from studying at institutions like Cambridge, flourishing as learners and growing in confidence, both academically and socially.
The gains to the university, on the other hand, are far less likely to be considered. I would argue that the ability of the elite universities to renew and revitalise themselves, to became fully “paid-up” members of the global, multi-cultural 21st century, is crucially dependent on attracting the very students who are going to be excluded by higher fees. Yet, equally worrying and even less recognised is the failure of the elite universities to realise their potential for combining academic excellence with a rich social diversity.
Anthony Giddens has written about the dangers of an economically privileged and politically powerful elite floating free of connection with the vast majority of society. The elite universities risk becoming gated academic communities - white, upper and upper-middle class ghettos. It is ironic that the widening access and participation debate has failed to recognise that elite universities need non-traditional students just as much as the students need them. Both need the other in order to flourish, the students academically and the universities socially.
An enormous number of working class students have already been excluded from realising their academic potential and now it is statistically evident that the coalition government’s decision to push up fees has resulted in the exclusion of many more.