The Government is making it harder for poor students to get a good degree

Plans to force low-performing universities to drop their fees will create a cycle of decline that traps poor students and damages their life chances

Liam Young
Tuesday 17 May 2016 13:11
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University graduates celebrate their success
University graduates celebrate their success

According to the Government’s latest education white paper, universities in the UK are failing their students. Their graduates are unable to find good jobs, the teaching their students receive is poor, and universities still favour the privileged in their admission processes.

That is certainly the case; the statistics bear it out. But the cure that the Conservatives propose for these ailments – the free market – amounts to a misdiagnosis of the illness. The idea that market forces can be relied upon to promote social mobility through education is a dangerous myth.

The new Teaching Excellence Framework, to be announced in the Queens Speech later this week, will starve poorly performing colleges and universities of much-needed investment through research funding. Rather than offering a helping hand to failing institutions, the Government will kick them to the curb. Conversely, and at the same time, institutions that already meet the highest standards of academic research on the global stage – the top performing academic institutions – will be able to raise their fees.

Whichever way you look at this, the poorest are hit the hardest.

A recent Sutton Trust report shows that students unable to rely on the ‘bank of mum and dad’ to fund the cost of their studies are put off the idea of university. They are also more likely to attend a local institution, even if they have the entry grades to gain a place at a higher-performing university that happens to be located further from the family home.

Given that financial worries drive poor students away from university, a reduction in fees at some establishments may see a rush of interest. This is especially the case if the university is local, as research undertaken by the National Education Opportunities Network last May showed that poorer students’ choices were being limited by financial concerns. This is just another example where the Tories fail to live up to their rhetoric on support for aspiration.

Plans to force universities achieving lower research standards to cut their fees – making them more attractive to poorer students – exacerbates an existing problem in higher education, whereby poorer students are less likely to attend a Russell Group university. Indeed, a recent report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that the percentage of deprived pupils being admitted to these selective universities was falling.

We are moving towards an environment where we simply accept that poor students will receive a second class higher education, whatever their academic aptitude.

I, for one, find that unacceptable. The quiet introduction of an explicit class system into our university sector is very damaging indeed.

The way in which institutional standards will be measured in future is also deeply unfair. A report by the Nuffield Foundation found that students from the 20 per cent most disadvantaged backgrounds were almost 10 per cent more likely to drop out of university within two years. Including ‘drop-out’ rates within the marking criteria will only further punish the poor, and the institutions they choose.

Imagine this situation: a university is already under-resourced owing to a general cut to the university teaching budget. The institution has a high intake of students from poor backgrounds, and 10 per cent of these students choose drop out owing to financial concerns – a figure which is no reflection on the abilities of these students or the success or failure of the teaching they received.

The institution fails to meet the new government standard; it is forced to drop its fees. The institution then attracts a great deal of interest from students from deprived backgrounds, who are pulled in the lower tuition fee – but then the university has even less resources to fund high quality research and its students are, by demographic, even more likely to drop out.

And so it goes on and on, a self-perpetuating cycle of social cleansing within the hallowed walls of our universities.

For the government to include this legislation as part of its social mobility outreach work is nothing short of a joke. For too long, the Tories have attacked those who are, in their own language, striving to improve their lives. This new plan should be exposed for the national disgrace it is.

Our university system is the backbone of the British education system, and is revered around the world. It is already hard enough for poor students to get in, and get on. The Government – the so-called modern, compassionate Conservative Government – wants to make it even harder. Sadly, it’s a case of the same old Tories.

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