Social mobility tsar warns cuts to tuition fees may not help poorest students

Martina Milburn, the new chair of the government’s Social Mobility Commission, said she was unconvinced that cutting fees was the best way to help pupils from poorer backgrounds prosper. The Guardian reports.

The warning comes amid suggestions that a government-commissioned review of fees will back a cut to £6,500 a year from the current maximum of £9,250. Such a move would also meet huge opposition from universities.

In an interview with the Observer, she said abolishing fees altogether could actually end up damaging access to higher education for some. There have been suggestions that a free tuition programme in Chile ended up leaving universities underfunded and “crowded out” the students from the poorest backgrounds who were the intended beneficiaries.

She suggested restoring maintenance grants designed to help poorer students meet living costs. She said her commission would look at the issue again.

“Cutting fees will certainly help a certain sector. Whether it helps the right young people, I’m not convinced,” she said. “There’s also evidence that if you remove tuition fees altogether, there would be a certain number of young people from particular backgrounds who wouldn’t be able to go to university at all – but if you restore something like the education maintenance allowance or a version of it, I think you would widen participation. That’s a personal view.”

A review of post-18 education, led by former equities broker Philip Augar, is expected to deliver its findings in the new year. There have been suggestions it could back a tiered system in which fees are cut for some degrees but increased for subjects that lead to higher earnings.

Milburn, a former chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, vowed to examine the impact of universal credit, the government’s new welfare reform, on young people and social mobility. She warned that social mobility could fall before it improves.

She was persuaded to take on the role after the dramatic resignation of the previous commission led by Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister, who quit with a warning that Brexit was preventing the government from taking issues of social mobility seriously.

“You can’t have a social mobility commission that is just full of rich people, or people who are at a certain point in their career. That has been a big change. I’m really proud of the commission that we have pulled together and the kinds of people we have been able to attract. We have a lot of strong personalities around the table and just by who we are, we will have a loud voice.”

Read more Social mobility tsar warns cuts to tuition fees may not help poorest students

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