As we approach A-level Results Day—and in the shadow of the “youthquake” of the general election linked to Labour’s promises on university fee abolition—there has been considerable discussion about the ever-vexed question of university access.
The Sutton Trust’s annual survey of school students suggested fewer believe they will go to university than at any point in the last 15 years. The Trust’s director, Peter Lampl, sees this as a result of the student funding system, which since the first introduction of fees by the Blair government at the turn of the millennium has seen the amount students are charged for university rise from a starting point of around £1000 per year now to over £9000 per year. Certainly, nearly two-thirds of those students in the Sutton Trust survey who felt they were unlikely to attend university cited “finance” as the reason they were being put off.
But there is some reason to be cautious about this bleak prospectus. In the first case, nearly three-quarters of the surveyed students did think they were on course for university study, higher than the Blair government’s 50% target for involvement in higher education, and very far beyond the 19% of young people attending university back in 1990. The trend of student involvement in higher education has headed upward without fail even as fees increase.
Moreover, students being put off by funding need to consider that the headline figure of debt, around £57,000 at present, is different from a commercial loan in several crucial ways: it is paid back only when in employment (and even then only when a particular threshold of earnings has been reached); the amount repaid per month is unrelated to the amount borrowed, but instead is a proportion of salary; and all remaining debt is written off after 30 years.
Even if numbers going to university continue to rise, is there a problem about who goes to which institution? Recent reports that whilst the achievement gap between well-off and poor children is closing, it is doing so very slowly. This has a knock-on effect on questions of university access, since even if the numbers of young people going into higher education continue to increase, the more prestigious institutions will still admit those with the highest grades. If those with the highest grades are, in general, the wealthiest students, then famous, research-intensive universities will admit these students.
How much is this a problem? Evidence suggests that, no matter what the university or course, a young person going to university will do better than someone of a similar background and achievement level who does not choose to go. However, this can be fairly marginal and we might hope for more than this, given the amounts of money and effort invested in improving university access: more clearly needs to be done throughout the education system to ensure disadvantaged students achieve more highly.
But, even whilst that work proceeds, we also need to finally defeat the problem on our ongoing failure to develop a technical and vocational education system of sufficient value to young people or employers. An 18-year-old from a disadvantaged background, indeed from any background, should face a choice beyond either a university place they may not really want (even on the generous loan terms we have) and nothing. Effective and valuable training, leading to enduring and appropriately remunerated employment, needs to be on the table too. Policy Exchange’s recent work on the size of the challenge to deliver a skills and apprenticeships policy is an important guide to the challenges in this area.
The government is committed to a funding review to help build such training: as we gear up for A-level results day, let us hope a worthy focus on university access does not divert the government from the fundamental reform still needed elsewhere in the system.