Labour activists have long supported the government’s determination to extend participation in higher education. However, this goal is proving incompatible with the current student funding arrangements.
At present, five times as many young people from professional backgrounds enter higher education compared to those from unskilled and manual backgrounds. Fears that higher education is little more than a birthright for the middle classes have foundation. Demand among middle-class families for higher education has become saturated. Future growth can come only by reaching those students from families that have no experience of post-16 education.
Yet the proportion of students from unskilled homes, which had been increasing, is stagnating at 14 percent. Why is this? Changes made to the student funding arrangements in 1997 failed to appreciate the effect of removing maintenance grants from some students. The problem of debt aversion among students from lower socio-economic groups was identified by the Independent Commission of Enquiry in Scotland and should not be understated.
Retention is also a problem; currently one in five students abandon their studies. Research has found that students from low-income families are more likely to withdraw from higher education on the basis of financial difficulties than students from more privileged backgrounds.
In this context, the recently announced review into student finance is both welcome and imperative if we are to deliver on the commitment to widening participation. The review is a real opportunity to deliver a more progressive system of higher education with people contributing financially once they are demonstrated to have benefited from their own education. It is clear that the government needs to provide a non-repayable grant to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds if access is to increase. Whilst tuition fees are means tested, with around 50 percent of students paying, many Labour MPs in middle England have heard, first hand, just how unpopular such contributions can be. Indeed, although parents are assessed for the contribution, it is often the student who is left to foot the bill.
It is vital that the review provides an injection of new money into the student support system. The DfES, Treasury and Prime Minister have been clear in their objective to find an equitable balance between contributions from the state, parents and students. However, recent reports suggest that the Treasury is considering options, which, though they would undoubtedly lessen the state contribution, would exacerbate financial difficulties for all students, particularly those from low socio-economic groups. For instance, the notion of attaching commercial rates on student loans would be an exceptionally damaging measure, with interest rates massively increasing the debt burden for all students.
The real challenge is to create a framework that enables access for learners from poor, and not just privileged, backgrounds. The Treasury must provide the resources that will create a society of talented graduates able to meet the recruitment demands of modern public services and the global economy alike.
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