Cut tuition fees and you shut the door to poor students

Last week, universities in England were preparing reports on how they have diversified their student populations. These reports will be submitted to the director of fair access at the Office for Students. My university, King’s College London, will report, happily, that our undergraduate intake is now 77% state school, more than 52% ethnic minority and has the fastest growing population of low-income students in the Russell Group. The Guardian reports.

And what has made all this progress and vital work possible? The very thing that many believe to be the enemy of educational opportunity – tuition fees.

When, in 2012, the coalition government introduced the then £9,000 fee regime, what’s little known is that it came with serious regulatory machinery to secure gains in access and participation. As a result, higher tuition fees have leveraged £800m into schemes and bursaries for poorer students.

The system, then, acts in a redistributive way. Alongside the poorest, its beneficiaries include refugees, forced migrants, care leavers and “estranged students” (those not supported by their parents). Thanks to the tuition fee regime, programmes designed to widen intake are now delivered at every single university. Education centres, homework clubs, tutoring by PhD students, summer schools and teacher training events are just some of the initiatives under way across the country.

The 2016 Labour party manifesto proposed the abolition of tuition fees, while there are suggestions that the Augar review will recommend a significant reduction. Both proposals endanger vital widening participation resources and infrastructure. In fact, without compensatory safeguards, universities will have to dismantle programmes and initiatives, and dismiss staff who support students to fulfil their ambitions. The loss will be massive and will hurt a generation of young people and their communities.

There are less drastic changes that would help. These include a recasting of the current regime as a graduate tax to relieve the sense of debt burden, a grace period on interest rates while studying and a block on early repayment. Most fundamentally, a reintroduction of maintenance grants to the poorest learners gives a powerful message that the government wants these students to go to university and significantly reduces the strain of their living costs.

Read the full article Cut tuition fees and you shut the door to poor students

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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