Fewer mature students are graduating. Photo: Robert Nicholas
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The real victims of this government's changes to tuition fees have been forgotten

The number of part-time students has fallen by a third since 2010.

When tuition fees were trebled four years ago, it elicited uproar from the student movement. Yet – to everyone’s surprise – the number of disadvantaged pupils studying for undergraduate degrees has since risen to record highs.

Meanwhile, the real victims of the changes to tuition fees have been forgotten. These are not undergraduates starting at University just after school, but mature and part-time students. Here the picture is far more sobering for the government.

In the last four years, the number of part-time students studying for first, foundation or other undergraduate degrees in the UK has fallen by over a third. From 580,000 in 2009/10, the number has fallen to 368,000 today. The trend is even more pronounced among older students: the Sutton Trust has found that 100,000 fewer students aged 25 and above started part-time higher education courses in 2012/13 than 2009/10 – a reduction of 43 per cent.

When it comes to mature students coming for full-time degrees, the situation is almost as bleak. There was an 18 per cent decline in the number of students aged 25 and over taking up places in 2013 compared to 2010.

One explanation for the decline in part-time and mature students is the economic crisis. It has made companies less likely to support employees studying part-time alongside their work, and people more reluctant to leave steady employment to study. Yet these factors do not explain why the fall in student numbers has been more dramatic in England than Scotland, which has no fees, and Northern Ireland and Wales, which effectively cap fees at £3,685. Since 2010 the fall in all part-time students (including both undergraduate and postgraduate) has been over twice as high in England as in Scotland, while there has been only a negligible fall in Wales and part-time students have actually risen in Northern Ireland.


“In comparing the figures for England with those for other parts of the UK where tuition fees didn’t increase so sharply, it was clear that the rise in fees did play a significant role,” explains Ruth Thompson, the co-chair of the Higher Education Commission inquiry into the financial sustainability of higher education in England. “The Commission expressed great concern that choking off lifelong learning and skills development risked choking off economic growth.”

For those who are already earning, paying back tuition fees amounts to an extra nine per cent tax rate. So if part-time studying does not lead to them earning more, they will actually be worse off: someone earning £25,000 a year would have to pay back an extra £360 a year in tax, for instance. Putting adults off investing in improving their education is no way to win the global race. Ultimately the result is a less skilled economy.

Another consequence is to entrench the lack of social mobility. Those who apply to University later have often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and higher education offers them the chance of closing the gap. “Many part-time and mature students come from less advantaged backgrounds,” explains Sir Peter Lampl, the Chairman of the Sutton Trust. “The fees hike has had a serious and detrimental impact on their education and career prospects.” He argues that the government must “reassess the level of fees” and develop outreach strategies targeted at mature students to ensure higher education is “accessible to all”.

If the decline in part-time students does not resonate in the way that a collapse in undergraduate students of school leaving age would it is no less significant. Encouraging more adults to higher education should be a central plank of equipping the UK economy for the 21st century. Far too many adults are being put off from furthering their education.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.