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).