On 9 December 2010, nearly 50,000 students marched into Parliament Square to protest as MPs voted on raising the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 per year. Effigies of Nick Clegg were burned. The Liberal Democrats were chastised for betraying their pre-election promise to oppose any increase in fees.
Afterwards, support for the Lib Dems collapsed – down from 57 MPs in 2010 to eight in May this year. But the fears that young people would be priced out of education have not been realised. Today, there are more disadvantaged students from England in university than ever before. Since the tuition-fees hike came into effect in 2012 there has been a 21 per cent increase in attendance by those from the poorest fifth of families, significantly more than in Scotland. Although all socio-economic groups in England are more likely to attend university than in 2012, the increase has been greatest among the least well-off.
For all the anger over the new fees system, it is in many respects more progressive. Loans for tuition fees are now paid back on annual incomes above £21,000, compared to £15,000 under the old system. Graduates earning £21,000 do not have to pay back any of their salary today, where they once had to pay £540 a year. Over their working lives, the lowest-earning 30 per cent of graduates will pay back less in tuition fees than before the 2010 reforms and only the highest-earning 27 per cent of graduates will have to repay their student loan in full.
The furore over fees led many universities to become more proactive in encouraging disadvantaged students to apply. Research suggests that the generosity of bursary provision had a negligible impact on students’ choice of which university to attend. It was not uncommon for a third of eligible students to fail to claim their bursaries. Money spent on outreach programmes and summer schools, meanwhile, has significantly been increased.
Universities are under greater scrutiny to ensure that they take access seriously. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was created in 2004. Les Ebdon, its director since 2012, likens OFFA’s power to deny institutions the right to charge the full £9,000 fee to a “nuclear option”. Three years ago, Cambridge University was forced to bolster its outreach programme after a heated meeting with the agency.
Crucially, government provision to students while at university has been maintained or enhanced. In 2011-12 a student from a family earning less than £25,000, studying outside London, was eligible to receive £6,403 in maintenance loans and grants. Today the sum is as much as £7,434.
Improvements in state schools, especially in London, have also helped to ensure that rising tuition fees have not had a detrimental effect. “As more kids from disadvantaged schools get into university, it means there are more ambassadors to go back into the schools and say, ‘University is for people like us,’” Ebdon says.
The rise in tuition fees has not been without difficulty. The numbers of part-time and mature students have fallen, which suggests that older students are more sensitive to debt, more aware of the financial impact of repaying 9 per cent of their income over £21,000. Belatedly, the government is recognising this. In the Autumn Statement, it announced that part-time students will now receive fee and maintenance support similar to that for full-time students. Five years on, will the Lib Dems make the case that they have been vindicated?
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war