Class barriers

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As half a million students begin university this month Rob Ferguson looks at the consequences of cuts and fees on applications

This September around half a million students will begin a university education - 36 percent of all school leavers. In 1962 a mere 20,000 school leavers entered university. The landscape of higher education has been transformed over past decades. In east London, where I now work, thousands of young people, male and female, many from Asian backgrounds, enter university who could not have dreamt of doing so 20 years ago. Vocational and Access qualifications now provide an important route to university for many working class students and mature workers. The student population has changed both its class origin and its gender, race and age profile.

Nonetheless, class privilege remains a constant. While entry to higher education in general has risen at a much faster rate for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the number of students from deprived areas entering the elite Russell Group of universities is declining as entry requirements are racked up to ever higher levels. Entry requirements remain the principal means by which working class students are held at bay from the doors of the elite institutions.

A year of resistance
The student protests over fees over the autumn/winter of 2010-11 heralded a year of resistance from the public sector strikes to last summer's riots. The student protesters rightly argued tuition fees were an attack on working class students. Students in England will pay the third highest fees in the world (after the US and South Korea). Furthermore the funding regime will have a long-term impact on the provision of higher education.

However, the increase in fees has not immediately translated into a disproportionate fall in applications from the poorest school leavers as many predicted. Applications from deprived areas hold steady. The main reason is simple. Youth unemployment is high and despite dodgy statistics regarding graduate employment, this is still higher in the long term than non-graduate employment; earnings are higher and jobs more rewarding. Students in deprived inner cities have an acute sense of their prospects and compare circumstances of elder siblings, friends and relatives.

In fact, the fall in applications is highest among the wealthy. Students with privileged backgrounds are frequently applying to elite institutions a year later, so avoiding the application lottery; others take a gap year paid for by their families or exploit connections to take up high-end internships, apprenticeships and jobs with top City firms. Another major group making up the fall in applications is mature students, mocking all the talk of "lifelong learning".

Nor has there been a shift away from courses incurring the highest fees. A perverse incentive of the new system is that a student on a course with fees of £7,500 or £6,000 will, in most cases, repay exactly the same as a student on a course charging fees of £9,000. Repayment is incurred only when a graduate earns over £21,000 and repayments are then calculated at 9 percent of the difference between actual earnings and £21,000. Only students earning very high salaries at the start of their career (around £40,000 a year) will ever repay a loan of £7,500 fees plus another for maintenance costs before it is written off. Above £7,500 the Treasury can kiss it goodbye.

Cutting costs
The intention of the government in redistributing university places to institutions charging under £7,500 is not to provide "cheaper" courses and lower student repayments but to cut costs to the Treasury. For students this will mean less contact with staff, packed lecture halls and fewer library resources. Meanwhile the dropout rate is running at 15-40 percent depending on the institution. The response of students faced with an underfunded course they do not wish to pursue or tens of thousands of pounds in fees and loan repayments with nothing to show for it has hardly warranted attention.
The other aim of government policy is to force universities to compete for students with the highest grades and entrench elitism even further. More selective universities can now enrol an unlimited number of students with AAB+ grades (ABB+ in 2013) leaving an increasingly underfunded "core". The most elitist, such as Oxford and Cambridge, are simply cutting their numbers and making entry ever more a privilege for the few.

A future black hole?
Two difficulties loom for the coalition. One is a future financial black hole of vast proportions. Estimates of total non-repayment range from 32 to 40 percent. The detail is complicated but essentially the government has to borrow to pay billions of pounds of student fees upfront plus the interest. Even with some optimistic assumptions regarding inflation, wage rises and employment rates for the next 30 years, up to 40 percent of this government borrowing will never be repaid. By 2046 the government estimates the outstanding balance on student loans will peak at £191 billion in today's prices, a fifth of the current national debt. It is like a giant PFI scheme gone berserk - immediate savings today at the expense of vastly greater future costs.

The other problem for the coalition is resistance. We should not make the mistake of thinking that just because students have continued to apply to university, the demonstrations were a flash in the pan. The consequences of the government's funding regime for education and for students will be severe; the protests remain a harbinger of future struggle. Decades of expansion now combine with ruined aspirations, a system in crisis and an experience of education hidebound by privilege on the one hand and cuts on the other. This is an explosive mix. In such circumstances student protest can be intensely political and can reverberate across the working class. Prepare to be surprised.

Rob Ferguson is a higher education adviser in a further education college