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06 December 2019

What do the party manifestos have to say about fair access to university?

Susannah Hume

SUSANNAH HUME: The awkward truth is that scrapping or reducing tuition fees may be bad for social mobility

Lecture theatre

The Policy Institute is producing a series of comment pieces analysing election manifesto pledges from the different parties across a range of policy areas. Read the full series here

Social mobility is dead; long live social justice

“Widening participation” refers to activities aimed at increasing access by those from historically underrepresented groups to the hallowed halls of the Academy. This gets wrapped up into the broader “social mobility” agenda as university is often a gateway to accessing higher-paid, higher-regarded and more secure jobs.

While the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both got everything they had to say on widening participation into a couple of sentences, the Labour manifesto leads out on reframing the debate: social mobility accepts inequality, they argue, and “for Labour, the true measure of fairness is not social mobility but social justice.” While we may suspect that rumours of the death of ‘social mobility’ have been greatly exaggerated, it is unsurprising that the Labour manifesto has a lot to say on a better, fairer higher education system.

Labour want a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system, which would mean that students didn’t get any offers of places until they had their final results; the current model works on predicted grades, which makes the system unpredictable, stressful and potentially unfair to high-achieving, low-income students.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will bring back maintenance grants, which will be popular but expensive. Labour also wants to “work with universities” on contextual admissions (i.e. admissions procedures that take account of an applicant’s background). Hardly groundbreaking, and PQA at least would cause major disruption to implement, but all probably on balance good for social mobility (or justice).

The Conservatives, meanwhile, will make the Office for Students (OfS) look at widening participation across all ages, “not just young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees”, perhaps noticing that young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees aren’t a key demographic for them. Labour is also interested in part-time learners, which is a long-overdue bit of attention from both major parties on the need for higher education to work better as part of the adult learning and retraining ecosystem.

The Liberal Democrats will “ensure that all universities work to widen participation by disadvantaged and underrepresented groups across the sector, prioritising their work with students in schools and colleges, and require every university to be transparent about selection criteria.” Difficult to disagree with, really, which is probably why most universities are already on this path.

Difficult to disagree with, unless you’re the Brexit Party, who think the whole university thing is overrated and would “abolish the target to push 50 per cent of young people into Higher Education.” This sits in a grab bag of education pledges: more parental choice, no student loan interest and scrapping the Apprenticeship Levy.

Should fees stay or should they go?

According to Labour, university marketisation has failed, and tuition fees need to go. Both the generalities and the specifics of this pledge could find supporters among both staff and students in higher education institutions.

This puts the other parties in a tough spot since the former Coalition partners were behind the rise in fees in 2012, and the Conservatives still owe a response to the Augar Review, which recommended, inter alia, reducing fees. Unsurprising, therefore, that they are trying to kick this issue into the long grass, promising to consider Augar’s recommendations “carefully” (Conservatives), or establish a(nother) review of HE finance in the next parliament (Liberal Democrats).

The Greens, meanwhile, scrap undergraduate tuition fees and “fully fund” every student. It’s unlikely we’ll find out in practice what they mean by that.

The issue with reducing or scrapping tuition fees, however, is that it benefits well-off students the most. Most students don’t pay off their student loans in full because the loans are forgiven after 30 years – those who do pay off in full tend to be higher-income students who go into better-paying jobs. Fair enough: scrapping tuition fees benefits all students, but it’s an expensive way to benefit a non‑target group more.

Fees have to be replaced by something, and a return to government grants to fund student places would also likely result in a return to student number caps to control the draw on the public purse. The lifting of these caps has arguably been a major factor in the expansion of access to higher education, and in particular the increase in underrepresented students at highly selective universities.

At the moment, in order to charge the higher fee level, institutions need to spend some of the higher income on widening participation activities and convince the OfS that they’re doing a good job.  Without this incentive, it’s very likely a number of institutions would dramatically reduce their effort.

The awkward truth, then, is that scrapping or reducing tuition fees may paradoxically be bad for social mobility (and justice) if it isn’t balanced with other incentives that are equally strong – and expensive.

Stay the same, or scrap it and start again?

As the architects of the current system, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats clearly see a lot of risk and not a lot of gain in getting into the detail on widening participation.

Labour, on the other hand, thinks we should probably just start again from scratch. The Labour manifesto provides a range of proposals, some of which are interesting, and some of which (many of the same) would have to navigate very choppy waters to get implemented.

Although “abolish fees” is their headline, underneath that is a substantial overhaul of how universities recruit and fund students – whether these changes if implemented would net out to more social justice (or mobility) is debatable.

Susannah Hume is Director of Evaluation at the Policy Institute, King's College London.

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