What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

April 26, 2007

Return to 'Facing up to reality'

Yet more statistical evidence suggesting the introduction of ‘top-up’ tuition fees of £3,000 a year has not deterred students from applying to university:
The latest snapshot of application figures to full-time undergraduate courses at UK higher education institutions from UCAS shows that 446,765 people have so far applied to start courses in 2007. This compares with 424,560 in 2006 and represents a rise of 5.2%.
All very well, you say, but what about those from poorer income groups? Well, the number of students from the bottom three socio-economic groups applying has increased from 71,709 in 2006 to 76,258 this year. That’s an increase of 6.3% - over and above the general trend.

I shan’t rehearse, yet again, my arguments in favour of market tuition fees for universities. But I do look forward to reading the NUS reaction to these figures. This is what they said back in February:
We have welcomed the overall rise in applications as news that prospective students continue to recognise the value of education despite the annual price tag of up to £3,000. However, UCAS have failed to release information regarding applications from students from under-represented and debt averse backgrounds and we are now pushing for these statistics to be made public. This is the real litmus test of the impact of top up fees - a drop in this group would be extremely serious even in the context of an overall increase and would directly contradict the Government’s own widening participation agenda which appears to have stalled.
What of the litmus test now?

As I wrote back in February:
The Labour Government was hypocritical to introduce tuition fees, having explicitly ruled them out in its 1997 manifesto; and even more hypocritical to introduce top-up fees having explicitly ruled them out in its 2001 manifesto. As a result, parents were given less time than they should have been to prepare for their introduction, and many have found it harder to fund their kids through education as a direct result.

But it is the right policy - indeed, the only policy - which will give our universities any chance of standing on their own two feet. The Lib Dems need to start facing up to that reality.

2 comments:

Patrick Wallace said...

I always thought party policy on this was a bit of knee-jerk populism. We can't have mass higher education AND free mass higher education AND international-standard free mass higher education; and from the point of view of social equity and maximising life-chances, the need is for state investment in early years education and development. That's where the "level playing field", the "trampoline rather than the safety net" and all those other metaphors need to be made a reality.

More power to your elbow.

Tom Papworth said...

The problem with people from low socio-economic groups being under-represented at universities is due to their poor performance (or even attendance) at A Levels.

If you want a level playing field for Higher Education, the solution is to improve the quality of school (and, Patrick is right, pre-school) education for those from the lower income groups.

By the time they get to university, it is too late to reverse the trend, and is just a subsidy for those who do make it, and who will earn a LOT more money thanks to that subsidised education.