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.