The Sutton Trust, Britain’s foremost education think tank, released a paper at the end of this week exploring what effect free tuition has had on Scottish universities and their socioeconomic profile. Given free tuition is a shibboleth of the Left, the findings make for interesting reading. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in England are 2.4 times less likely to attend university than their middle class peers. In Wales, the number is three time. In Scotland, it is four times.
On the surface of it, free university tuition has actually made it less likely that poorer students go to university – at the very least, it proves that it doesn’t necessarily I ncrease their numbers amongst the post-secondary educated. Part of this, in Scotland anyhow, comes down to the number of places available. There is a cap on admissions, which makes sense since there is only so many new students that the universities in Scotland can admit in any one year. In England, partly because of the fact that there are fees paid by the students, there are more places and thus more places for poorer students.
This goes along with the fact that higher tuition fees, when introduced by the coalition government in 2010, has led to there being more poorer university students, not fewer. The truth is – and no on the Left wants to face this – tuition fees are a tax on the middle classes. For a poorer student, having to pay nothing up front is much better than having to pay anything at all until after graduation, since the degree is the thing that is supposed to open up their ability to earn money. For a middle class student, a trebling of tuition fees is a genuine trebling of money out, since these students have parents who could afford to simply pay the old £3k fee upfront.
I have always understood why middle class students were upset by the tuition fees increase. They got stiffed and had every right to feel aggrieved. What was irritating about it – and continues to grate – is that they paint it all as something that is a negative for students or prospective students poorer than themselves, when all of the evidence continues to point to the contrary. This is not to champion a more right-wing system than we have now, one which is like the American system. I wouldn’t want to see a situation where poorer kids are genuinely elbowed out of getting a higher education altogether, which is what something like that would do, in my opinion. But we have to look at what is actually contributing to more equality in society – and what is not, despite good intentions.
I ask those who most fervently support free university tuition: if it could be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it led to fewer students from poorer backgrounds getting a post-secondary education, would you still be for it? That is the real question for the Left to ask itself (while the Right should be careful in thinking a more free market system would create more socioeconomic levelling – international comparisons tell us it almost certainly wouldn’t).
David Evans says
I’m afraid you seem to be suffering from confirmation bias here. The one thing that the report does not say is that “Tuition free university leads to fewer poor students attending.” You may infer some level of support for your hypothesis, but stating it as a causal fact is quite simply putting your own spin on some statistics that may have 1001 other reasons behind them.
As you say “if it could be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it led to fewer students from poorer backgrounds getting a post-secondary education, would you still be for it?” We are still a long way from even remotely proving it.
As David says, the headline completely misrepresents what the report says about the effect that free tuition has had in Scotland, which is this:
In Scotland, it has been assumed that
free tuition would automatically lead to a more inclusive university system. Apart from the
Conservatives, all political parties in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2016
endorsed this policy, which has literally been carved in stone at Heriot-Watt University. There are
clear upsides to this policy, not least in ensuring that one type of debt is removed from a generation of
graduates facing high house prices and a tight labour market. However, it is equally important to
recognise that the abolition of student tuition fees in 2000 and of the graduate endowment in 2007 did
not lead to increased rates of university participation overall, or by students from less advantaged
backgrounds. Improvements in participation have been largely driven by the growth of college HN
provision in which students from poorer backgrounds are over-represented.
Toby Fenwick says
The other point Nick is that the US system is a lot more complex than “bad for the poor”: at the most selective institutions the poor will largely get enough financial aid for it to be free- the pinch point is actually for parental incomes of $100-250k pa.
I’m not recommending a switch to the US system, but it is more nuanced than the headlines in this country imply.
Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your weblog and wished to mention that I
have truly enjoyed surfing around your website posts.
After all I’ll be subscribing for your feed and i also i do hope
you write again soon!
Wow, incredible weblog layout! How lengthy have you been blogging for?
you made blogging look easy. The full look of your website is fantastic,
let alone the content material!