Are rising fees making University inaccessible for less advantaged students?

Students starting their degrees in September 2017 at Leeds and many other Universities around the country will be paying a higher tuition fee of £9,250 per year, and this is set to rise year by year in line with inflation. This has provoked concern that less wealthy students will be deterred from applying to University, further widening the inequality gap present in higher education; students from the most advantaged areas are 3 times as likely as those from the least advantaged to go to University. However, statistics from HESA, an agency that analyses data from higher education institutions, have found that the percentage of entrants from lower socio-economic backgrounds has in fact been rising each year, increasing from 30.6% in 2010/11 to 33% in 2014/15, with a similar increase in application rates, and the trend doesn’t seem set to reverse.

The raising of tuition fees aims to ensure Universities remain sufficiently funded – inflation has decreased the real value of the £9,000 fixed tuition fee, reducing its current value to just £8,200. However, the ability to increase fees will not be unconditional – a University’s eligibility to increase fees is preconditioned on achieving a certain level of quality of teaching as assessed by a new framework, TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework). TEF is a new method of assessing Universities based on the quality of their teaching, which MP Jo Johnson claims aims “to build a culture where teaching has equal status with research”. This is amid concerns that Universities put too much emphasis on research and not enough on the teaching of their students.

The Gryphon spoke with Professor Ward, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Student Education at the University of Leeds, about the University’s decision to set the higher fee rate, and also about its commitment to improving access for students from less wealthy backgrounds. He told the Gryphon that in getting involved with TEF, Leeds hopes to influence its implementation, to ensure that in assessing the quality of teaching it focuses on things that will actually improve students’ education. Regarding improving access, Professor Ward told us that the increased fees have opened up more money to channel to less advantaged students, which is reaching them through various means, such as Leeds Financial Support, scholarships and bursaries, and outreach schemes like Access to Leeds. Currently students from disadvantaged backgrounds make up 26% of the Leeds cohort, and this is increasing, although it’s a modest increase compared to what we would like to be seeing, and more still needs to be done.

Arguably, it’s not the students from the poorest backgrounds that suffer under the new tuition fee regime, but those students from middle income families whose parents are earning enough to disqualify them for financial support, yet not enough to support their children financially themselves. On top of this, it is the middle-income graduates who will in future end up paying back the most money to pay off their student loans, since low earners have debt written off after 30 years, and high earners pay back their loan quickly thus paying less in interest. Government initiatives should be careful not to forget about this middle bracket which encompasses the majority of students.

By Lisa Johnson-Davis

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