Who will pay for Leicester’s extra students?

There are likely to be thousands of extra students in Leicester in the next few years. If the universities do the job they say they are trying to, they will be from less well-off backgrounds and no-one in their families will have benefited from higher education before.

This week Lord Mandelson, back in the Cabinet and now in charge of the country’s universities, made no secret of the fact that the Government is likely to lift the cap on tuition fees.

At the moment undergraduates pay just over £3,000 a year but, if vice-chancellors get their way, this could almost double, with different universities – and even different courses within the same institution – charging different prices.

I spoke to the registrar of one of Leicestershire’s universities today. He says academics are determined to attract the type of student whose family would never have dreamed of going into higher education before. The type of teenager from tough working class estates that I’ve talked about before in this blog.

He says it’s the lower expectations and the lower school results which are putting these youngsters off going to university, not the potentially high fees.

Is that right? Students I spoke to today seemed unanimous in their belief that higher fees would put people off going to university. They said they themselves had almost been deterred because of the cost. They had already seen classmates drop out because of tuition fees.

As the registrar told me, the fees should not be seen as a debt but as an investment in a future – graduates won’t have to start paying the bill until they’re in work and can afford it. And evidentally there will be bursaries for less well-off talented teenagers.

The trouble is, if the National Union of Students’ estimates of an average debt of £30,000 are correct, that could mean a lifetime of repayments. Those sorts of figures will, whether anyone likes it or not, prove to be a great obstacle; if only in people’s heads.

The fact is the argument is already over. When the decision was taken to aim for a 50 per cent higher education participation rate and tuition fees were introduced, the battle for “free” degrees was lost.

Someone has to pay and, of course,  it’s in the national interest that we have the “world class education system” vice-chancellors say a rise in tuition fees will bring about. But an increase in prices will do nothing for the gaping class divide in this country that politicians have still woefully failed to bridge.

Universities are now genuinely trying to improve participation among Britain’s less well-off, traditionally less aspirational families. Higher tuition fees will make their job a whole lot harder.

About Ian

A journalist working in Brussels
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2 Responses to Who will pay for Leicester’s extra students?

  1. Andrew says:

    My parents were students at Birmingham university in the late fifties. Both were from working-class families, and both had got to university because they had a good quality state education. I went to a retirement do for a former pro-vice-chancellor a couple of years ago, someone I had always assumed from his accent was upper middle class, and he had the same story – the 1944 education act, giving free secondary education to everyone, enabled a lot of bright children from poor backgrounds to get the education they deserved. I think the introduction of loans and fees was very misguided – it was based on looking at how the Americans do it, and failing to recognise that US universities have a long tradition of alumni donations and generous scholarships that just doesn’t exist in the UK outside of Oxbridge. Widening participation, too. 50% to go on to university? About 65% of children get five A-C GCSEs, and that number drops to less than 50% if you only include those with English and Maths among the five. That’s why even good universities find themselves taking on students who are lacking basic literacy and numeracy.

    Interesting point in your earlier post about children living on the Saff – we have parties of schoolchildren in during the weeks when the university is on vacation and the schools are still going, and at one time these visits were deliberately aimed at encouraging them to think about university being somewhere they might like to aim at. A couple of us were talking to a group of boys from Lancaster school, most of them lived on the estate and not one of them knew anyone who had been to university, or had any ambition to go themselves.

  2. AJ Cann says:

    I wonder if everyone is clear about the fact that the Higher Education Act which introduced fees a few years ago also mandated that 2/3 of the £3000 fee goes back to students in the form of scholarships and bursaries – universities on get to keep £1000 to improve teaching. Last week, university budgets were cut by a further 1.6%, and those extra 10,000 places – they’re not fully funded, meaning the amount of money available for teaching is cut again – double whammy. It’s not only students who are experiencing hard times.

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