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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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.