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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.