15th October 2010 at 01:00
It's poverty of ambition, not student debt, that's keeping poor children away from university

Around about now, pupils who are thinking of applying to university are filling in their Ucas forms. Just as they are weighing up the pros and cons of Essex or Brighton or Imperial, along comes a lord most will probably not have heard of who tells them that they will have to pay significantly more for the privilege of being an undergraduate. It would be understandable if a lot of them felt discouraged. All that debt. Is it worth it?

If they listen to the National Union of Students and fellow travellers, many pupils, especially those from poor backgrounds, could be forgiven for thinking that it isn't. The NUS has spent years claiming that tuition fees would put off pupils from applying to university. In fact, applications have risen to record levels. It has also insisted that fear of debt would deter the poor. Much to the consternation of the NUS, which is a good deal more middle class than the WI and a lot less agile in its thinking, poor pupils have proved as rational as those from wealthier backgrounds. Those with the right A-level grades went to university in roughly the same proportions as other pupils.

The problem, as a Sutton Trust report confirmed earlier this year, is that disadvantaged students struggle to achieve those A-level grades and when they do, they tend to opt for less selective universities. Why? Partly because they lack good information about what subjects and universities to choose, but mainly because of a poverty of aspiration. Poor students often think that a university education - especially an elite one - isn't for them. Now that Lord Browne has advised that the cap on fees should be removed, the plight of the poor has been pressed into service once again to attack a proposal that, whatever its drawbacks (page 4), is essentially just. It is right that students contribute after graduation to a higher education that benefits them so much. If they don't pay, taxpayers - including the large numbers who did not benefit from it - do.

Scots and Welsh politicians may brag that their free and capped systems are more accessible to disadvantaged pupils. But the vast majority of their subsidy goes to middle-class students who stand a far better chance of landing a well-paid job than the 50 per cent of their classmates who didn't make it to university. Is that fair?

Worse, in its zeal to defend what is essentially a middle-class benefit, the "progressive" left plays on the fears of the poor. In essence, it says to them: "You suspected university wasn't for you, and you know what, you're right. You can't afford it." Student debt is a formidable deterrent for many. But the biggest hurdle poor pupils face is mental, not financial. They think that university isn't for them. Thanks to the antics of the NUS et al their fears are reinforced.


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