Experts say cutting tuition fees may hit poorest students hardest – here’s why
University chiefs say plans to reduce fees to £6,500 would likely benefit students from mid-high income families most, and harm those from the poorest.
The upcoming review into post-18 education and funding in England has caused concerns over the impact of a fee reduction.
While reducing fees seems like something everyone would want, some experts are concerned that bursaries will be cut as a direct result.
Students from poorer backgrounds may then feel forced to miss out on a university education, as they are unlikely to receive the same financial support from their families as their peers from higher income households.
It has also been suggested that, thanks to the way Student Loan repayments work, a reduction in fees would only benefit those who go on to earn the highest salaries.
Why would lower fees benefit students from richer backgrounds?
While we don't know anything for certain yet, reports suggest that the Augar review (so called as it's headed by Philip Augar) into higher education funding will conclude that tuition fees should be reduced in some way.
According to some experts, this will leave universities with less money, meaning they may struggle to provide the extra financial support for the students who need it.
This could have a knock-on effect in different ways. Financial worries are one of the biggest causes of mental health issues among students and poorer students are more likely to drop out of university.
In addition to the concerns over bursaries, Dame Janet Beer, current president of Universities UK, believes reducing fees would mean institutions would have to limit the number of places they offered on courses.
Ms Beer told the Today programme on Radio 4:
Students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds would be the hardest hit by a cut to fees and also from the limitation on student places... the primary beneficiaries (would be) mid to high-income graduates because the highest earners would benefit the most.
We would have less resource to support the students who we need to attract into university.
Former education secretary, Justine Greening, has also called these proposals "regressive" and "bad for social mobility". Speaking to The Sun, she said:
I think it’s a terrible plan. If you have a cap on numbers of students, we know that the ones who lose out are the ones from low-income families.
I think it’s regressive because the people who will end up paying less in student fees will be those from the better-off families who are more likely to go to university.
What's the deal with the Augar review?
The Augar review is the government's report examining current funding of higher education in England, and working out what needs to change. First announced back in February, it is due to be published in early 2019.
Ms Beer has expressed concerns that the review will not address the right problems in the right ways.
She believes it will be a missed opportunity unless it directly addresses student numbers, especially those of mature and part-time students, which she describes as "almost entirely missing at the moment".
And then there's the problem of the cost of living for today's students – in our opinion, the biggest issue facing young people at university.
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Maintenance Loans vary wildly depending on where you go to university, but students from poorer backgrounds will most likely borrow more and therefore come out with more debt – especially since Maintenance Grants were scrapped.
What's more, the average Maintenance Loan falls £170 short of the average monthly living costs for students in the UK. Many students report that this is, in part, a consequence of Maintenance Loan amounts being linked to your parents' income.
Thus far there seems to be no effort to tackle this.
The focus once again seems to be on the tuition fees, but the real issue for students, and mostly those from poorer backgrounds, is still the insultingly low Maintenance Loans.
As I've mentioned before a reduction in fees will only help the top 30% of high-earning graduates, meaning 70% of students won't benefit at all.
This news that it could also affect funding for poorer students, only adding further cause for concern.
Jake Butler, Student Money Expert at Save the Student
What happens now?
A spokesman from the Department of Higher Education told The Sun:
Students are rightly concerned about value for money – that’s exactly why we are looking at how we can reform the whole system to make it fairer.
We have already taken steps to make the system better for graduates, including by increasing the repayment threshold.
But we are open-minded in our approach, and it’s important that we don’t pre-empt the outcomes of the review.
Increasing the repayment threshold to £25,000 was a change that we were hugely supportive of. In essence, it means that graduates earning lower salaries don't have to worry about money going out for this every month.
And even if you do reach the salary threshold, the amount you will pay back is proportionate to your earnings – just 9% of anything you earn over £25,000.
Nonetheless, it still does address the fact that those from poorer families will need to borrow more and therefore owe more should they decide to go to university.
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While the debt is cancelled after 30 years, and the repayments are manageable, working class students are more likely to be debt-averse – meaning the prospect of debt alone is enough to put them off a university education.
There has also been the suggestion that the Augar review will recommend decreasing tuition fees for poorer students, and increasing them for degrees that have usually led to higher paid jobs after university.
Once again, however, this does nothing to tackle the Maintenance Loan issue and cost of living at university. What's more, it's been suggested that being debt-averse will push working class students into applying for courses with lower fees – the very courses which have lower earning potential.
Clearly, something has to be done, as graduates are now being left with sky high debts for not enough payback. But whether or not the government will go about it in the right way remains to be seen.
What changes do you think need to be made to university fees and funding? Let us know in the comments!