Potential disaster for poor/rich attendance gap at our Universities

Nicholas Harrison

The UK is seen as one of the leaders in higher education with international subscription to courses being second to the USA. With the proposed removal of the maintenance grant from governmental support schemes are we hindering the future of poorer students wanting to attend university?  Are we damaging the global view on the UKs’ higher educational system by potential furthering the poor rich attendance gap?

2012 ushered in a new era of studentship, £9,000 tuition fees were first introduced with fees being selected by bodies within universities. Flexibility of fees was introduced partly to allow universities to compete for students and partially as a result of spending cuts in 2010. Student fee caps were increased from £3,290 to £6000 with £9000 being available if universities ensured access to poorer students. Taking a fee of £6000 devalues the university, so many of the top universities in the country went into the decision with their hands tied. This was a significant step away from equality in our higher education system.

WISE is an organisation that looks to inspire woman into degrees in science and Engineering, fields where there is a large minority of woman. The reluctance of woman to join these fields is predominately due to social trends and is seen as unacceptable for the sake of equality in our society.  Similarly there is large disparity in the number of wealthy and poor students at university this is known as the accessibility gap.  There is no organisation inspiring the poorer into university, there is then a lack of continuity in how marginalised groups are treated in higher education. Although there are many factors that enter into the decision finances are a key component, anyone that has earned the right to higher education shouldn’t be prevented from attending due to finance (Brown review 2010). Meritocracy is a something that our state should aspire to.

It was feared that the almost tripling of fees would deter poorer potential applicants from attending university. The affect was seemingly mixed with a decrease in the accessibility gap across the top 30 universities but with the top 13 universities increased by 0.5 to a staggering ratio of 9.8. There was no seismic shift in the accessibility gap, the increased support provided by universities and the large governmental grants still available to those students allowed significant peace of mind during the application process. For potential applicants of 2016/17 they will not have this lifeline, along with the stresses of an unknown future these unworldly 17/18 year olds will have to consider the £50,000 price tag for a 3 year course. Although fears were not realised in 2012, kicking the crutches from poorer students may well do the job this time.

The huge amount of debt will have an emotional toll on students which is highly dependent on their financial situation and their family’s financial background. To a lot of families comfortably above the bread line, debt is managed as part of everyday life and the significance is lessened. However those families that have a history of struggling with repayments and repossession through debt will feel a far heavier weight. Some would argue that the relaxed repayment schemes effectively prevent the burden. I’m part of the first year to experience increased fees and the environment at the time of application was uncertainty; the burden was not lifted, the decision whether to go was not trivial, and the debt was frightening.

The removal of grants was proposed by Osborne in order to prevent budgetary issues arising from the cap on student numbers being lifted. A rise to the maximum amount of support available is being introduced to potentially counteract any effect on the attendance gap; a freeze on the payback threshold is also being discussed. It is not repayment potential applicants are worried about but the sheer amount of debt. This preventative measure seems futile considering repayments are related to earnings and 45% of students will not pay off their loan (written off after 30 years). This was the case for applicants of 2012/13 and the amount unpaid will be increased by the grant changes for prospective 2016/17 students; leaving a larger amount unpaid and therefore written off after 30 years. Osborne comments on the fairness on taxpayers as a motive for change “basic unfairness in asking taxpayers to fund grants for people who are likely to earn a lot more than them”. It is amusing and perhaps slightly ironic that the shortcomings are funded by those students that are at more “value for money” universities and those that get highly paid employment post-graduation. It is exactly this lack of continuity in policy and consideration of the wider picture which will cause a decline in poorer students at university.

The system currently in place for student funding in university is floored. Means testing of grants is intended to distribute the grants to those that really need it, in a lot of cases this doesn’t happen. One of the major problem areas of the system is in families with divorced parents, since child maintenance is ignored. The solution then is to provide a wider range of grant with means testing being combined with cost of living in the area, something only considered for universities in London. Grants would then appropriately reflect the actual cost of living with more being available to those with specific unaccountable expenses.

It is globally expected to see an attendance gap the trend in the UK, since an increase in 2010, is for it to shrink. Protecting this progress is massively important for the sake of equal opportunities and the removal of the maintenance grant will hinder this. Even though changes to student finance will not affect students while at university, it’s the daunting prospect of the debt that will stop them going. The burden of responsibility should not lie with 17/18 year olds looking to broaden their horizons; but with the schools, families and universities whose interest they protect. Education of the financial support available at specific universities and the restrictions the debt presents will be crucial in promoting the interests of less moneyed applicants. Educating applicants prior to taking on debt is the key to maintaining the excellent global reputation of the UK’s higher educational system.


Potential disaster for poor/rich attendance gap at our Universities

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