Students celebrate graduating. Photo: Dan Kitwood
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If Labour cuts tuition fees, it won't help more disadvantaged students go to university

In higher education policy, Labour can be more radical – and on the cheap.

Not since the days of effigies of Nick Clegg being burned have tuition fees exerted such a hold over the political agenda. Labour’s offer on fees is shaping up as its final policy card to play before the general election. As John McDermott observes: “Tuition fees is part of Labour’s broader problem: how to make good on Mr Miliband’s talk of radicalism in a world with no money.”

It appears that Labour’s answer – one first advocated at party conference in September 2011 – will be to lower maximum fees from £9,000 to £6,000. The policy is under vicious attack from universities, with an array of vice-chancellors taking to The Times yesterday to express fears that it could do “colossal damage” to university funding. And, as I explained last week, a cut in tuition fees would increase income inequality. It would reduce the tax burden of the richest graduates while doing nothing to help less well-off graduates or, even more importantly, lower socioeconomic groups when they are studying at university.

Damningly, Labour’s apparent new policy on tuition fees doesn’t even engage with the question of how to get more disadvantaged pupils into top universities. Partly this reflects the surprising success of the trebling of tuition fees. Apocalyptic fears that a generation of students would be put off university have not materialised: there are more disadvantaged pupils at university than ever before. Application rates for the new university year have just risen to new heights, with a bump in application rates from 18-year-olds living in the most disadvantaged areas in England from 18 to a record 21 per cent.

But disadvantaged pupils have been much slower making their way to elite institutions. In 2014, 22 per cent of applicants from advantaged areas went to higher tariff universities, compared to just 3 per cent from disadvantaged areas. Today a young person from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods is ten times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than a child from the poorest fifth. Five independent schools send as many students to Oxbridge every year as 1,800 state schools combined.

There is a lot that could be done to help – and it would cost far less than the £2.5bn a year it would take to lower tuition fees to £6,000.

All disadvantaged pupils can afford to take out a tuition fee loan because they will only begin to pay it back when the start earning £21,000 a year. But disadvantaged pupils do endure financial hardship at university that impedes their ability to study, and can even lead to dropping out. The problem is rooted not in tuition fees but inadequate maintenance loans. When I visited Sheffield recently, Emily Connor, the president of Sheffield Hallam Students' Union, explained that she received only £7.50 a week in living costs after accommodation expenses in her first year. Thousands of students around the country have had similar experiences. Ensuring adequate provision of maintenance loans would transform the university experience for disadvantaged students.

There are also simple steps that could be taken to make the admissions system fairer for students. Every year, more than 50,000 places are awarded through clearing. This annual harum-scarum for places is a charade: university places are decided by which students spot adverts for universities for their remaining places and who has the speediest broadband connection. Panic-stricken pupils are lumbered with courses they lack genuine interest in – bad news for the universities and, when they drop out or change degree, the taxpayer too.

All of this is because of the UK’s insane requirement that pupils (unless they want to do a gap year) apply to university before they have sat their A-levels. This system is failing bright children at underperforming schools. Contrary to the myth, state school teachers are not too generous in their predicted grades for pupils, but too harsh. That is why 3,000 disadvantaged pupils each year get the grades to go to an elite university but go to a less competitive one.

The solution is not complicated. It is, as a government task force recommended in 2004, for students to apply to university after getting their results, something that exams a few weeks earlier and a quicker marking process would allow. This system “would be much fairer and would give less advantaged students the confidence to apply to the most selective universities”, says Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Sutton Trust.

The financial cost of this modest change would be negligible. But the upshot would be great. Fewer students would waste time and money on courses they do not want to do. And fewer disadvantaged students would end up in universities that do not do justice to their ability, providing a much-needed boon to social mobility.

If Labour yearns for a chance to be radical on the cheap, higher education policy provides just this opportunity. Three months before polling day, it is not one that the party has taken.  

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

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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.