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19 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:54am

The Conservatives’ plans for higher education are the wrong approach

Tory plans will shut the poorest out of higher education, warns Bex Bailey. 

By Bex Bailey

I want people to be able to go to the best university they can get into, not the best university they can afford.

Plans to allow universities to increase their fees depending on the quality of teaching will price the poorest students out of the best universities. This is further evidence that, for all their talk of improving life chances, the Tories will take every opportunity to hold the poorest back.

First, they abolished student maintenance grants, replacing them with loans. These grants helped the poorest students afford the basics like food and books. Scrapping them directly hit students from the lowest income families, who will now leave university with substantially higher debts than their better-off peers.

Now, to add insult to injury, the Tories are intent on letting the free market run riot in the higher education system, which will push the least wealthy towards lower-quality universities and entrench inequalities.

The Tories say their plans will increase competition and choice. If anything, they will do the opposite.

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Competition among universities to attract students already exists. They should be raising their standards so they attract more students, not so they can increase their fees. If some students are priced out of their preferred university, universities will miss out on talent and competition will be reduced.

Claiming that a policy designed to limit choice based on income will “increase choice” is nothing short of ridiculous.

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The Tories are prioritising ideological reform over students’ best interests.

If the Tories are serious about improving life chances, they should scrap these plans and focus on improving education in the earliest years of life. Most people’s chances of getting a good education and going to university are determined even before they start school.

80 per cent of all the brain cells a person will ever have are manufactured before the age of two, with the first three years of life being a critical period for brain growth. It has been shown that a child’s upbringing in these early years has a significant impact on its capabilities. Research by Save the Children found that nearly 80 per cent of the difference in GCSE results between rich and poor children had been determined by the age of seven. As it stands, your chances of going to university are decided long before you are old enough to even consider going to university. We have to break the cycle of deprivation that prevents working class people accessing higher education.

The priority has to be ensuring everyone – regardless of their background or income – gets the best opportunities in life and is able to fulfil their potential.

That way, people will be able to choose their university based on their ability and not on their budget.

Bex Bailey was youth representative on Labour’s NEC 2014-16 and is a candidate for the party’s NEC.