Amidst the outrage caused by the government’s plans to raise university tuition fees in England to £9000, one of the greatest concerns raised has been the impact the new system will have on underprivileged students applying for university places.
These concerns, expressed by a wide range of sources, from the National Union of Students to Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes, have now been heightened by a report released by the Sutton trust.
The report studied the numbers of children who qualified for free school meals (representative of coming from underprivileged backgrounds or economically disadvantaged families) and calculated how many of them went on to attend top British Universities. The startling results reveal that a mere 0.8% of the student body at Oxford and Cambridge Universities consists of pupils who were eligible for free school meals, making them a shocking 55 times less likely to end up with an Oxbridge education than those from private schools.
On top of this, the government has announced that it will be axing the Aim Higher Scheme, which existed to encourage and facilitate access to higher education for deprived pupils. These measures, combined with the plans to raise tuition fees to a staggering £9000, are widely predicted by campaigners, researchers and think-tanks to result in a proverbial ‘perfect storm’, devastating the chances of attending top universities, or even any university, for students from deprived backgrounds.
Campaigners fear that the already enormous gap between poor and privileged students at the top universities will yawn wider still with the introduction of the new tuition fees scheme until we face a tiered higher education system where the rich pay for the best university degrees; middle class, middle-income earners lose out with mediocre degrees and longer, greater debts; and those from the poorest backgrounds simply never get to university at all.
Though the government is quick to insist that those universities choosing to charge above £6000 will have to jump through tough hoops to prove their investment in rigorous access schemes, their assurances are rather dampened by the withdrawal of the Aim Higher Scheme, which will effectively cancel out these extra measures as they will only be replacing the funds withdrawn by the state funded access programme. Cameron and Clegg have also been much less forthcoming about the other concerns about the new tuition fees scheme highlighted by campaigners and research groups.
Most significant of all is the risk that those universities providing the greatest number of places for disadvantaged students will be badly hit financially under the new tuition fees system. The government plans to introduce a requirement that universities charging over £6000 will foot the bill for one year of tuition fees for those students who were eligible for free school meals. But the Sutton report points out that this is likely to have negligible impact on elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge who have so few FSM students anyway, allowing them to increase their fees exponentially, whilst universities who provide the greatest access for underprivileged students will effectively be penalised for their fairness and support to the extent that they will be forced to take greater numbers of financially secure students instead in order to avoid bankruptcy.
Though the figure of 0.8% sounds appalling however, it is overly simplistic solely to point the finger directly at Oxbridge and other elite universities, jumping to the conclusion that their lack of access schemes and unfair selection procedures are the main cause of their skewed student statistics. In fact a 2009 report showed that on average 15% of students eligible for free school meals did not even achieve 5 GCSEs, suggesting that a lack of support much earlier on and the difficulties of their home environments may be stopping them from achieving highly enough to apply for top universities in the first place.
This is supported by statistics showing that the percentage of students from state schools applying to Oxford and Cambridge universities roughly equates to the percentage taking up places, suggesting that it is not the universities’ applications procedure that creates the disparity.
All evidence points to the fact that greater, far more rigorous intervention and encouragement is required nationwide at a much earlier stage in order to tackle the problem of equal access to university. So the decision of the government to hike tuition fees to dizzying new heights whilst simultaneously scrapping access schemes and punishing universities offering the most places to disadvantaged pupils is irresponsible, ill-conceived, and in the long term likely to devastate access to higher education for the poorest students.