Poor students? They could be better off than ever

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Despite the tuition fee rise, there may never have been a better time for disadvantaged kids to go to university

We'll eat fire and ice and destruction because we're angry. Very fucking angry," Charlie Gilmour shouted during a demonstration against tuition fees in December 2010.

The private-school educated Cambridge student, who achieved infamy and a short break at Her Majesty's pleasure after swinging from the Cenotaph in London, reflected the mood in many quarters at the time.

As police vans were torched, school pupils kettled and Nick Clegg effigies hanged, it seemed the moral outrage was endless. And yet, nearly two years on, as the first cohort of undergraduates to study under the contentious fees regime enjoys the pleasures of freshers' week, a strange atmosphere of calm reigns. Rather than rampaging in the streets, students are drawing up budgets, buying baked beans in bulk and trying not to think about the decades of debt ahead of them.

Despite a drop in applications - 10 per cent fewer people in England had applied for university by the June 2012 deadline - it seems most school- leavers have not been the least bit deterred by the rocketing fees. Applications from 18-year-olds in England are down a much lower 4.1 per cent, a drop of 8,493.

But the real concern over fees - voiced largely by middle-class undergrads - was for the very poorest students: how would they react to the opportunity to take on a lifetime of debt? Would they walk away from the opportunities afforded by undergraduate study? Would social mobility in England, already wobbly, receive a knockout blow?

Although experts stress that this is an area extremely hard to analyse, initial reports suggest that those from the very poorest backgrounds have so far not been put off any more than their richer peers.

A report by the Independent Commission on Fees - charged with monitoring the impact of the policy - says applications from people from underprivileged backgrounds have not seen a "disproportionate drop- off".

The findings will be music to the ears of the government, which has been keen to promote its commitment to social mobility. Any sign that applications from school-leavers are holding up also represents a victory for universities and their admissions tutors - those who have long argued for much higher fees - as they attempt to "sell" their new deal on loans, grants and support packages.

The headline figures, they concede, are alarming. The average student could leave with nearly pound;60,000 worth of debt. But they and their supporters then audaciously turn the whole argument on its head: 2012 and the years that follow may, they argue, actually be a good time to go to university if you are from a poorer background. Indeed, there may never have been a better time.

Dramatic changes for part-time study

Close analysis suggests that these universities could have a point. First, while the loans the freshers of 2012 are lining up are inevitably gargantuan compared with those of their predecessors, the debt on fee and maintenance loans is "friendlier". The threshold at which students will have to start paying back has been shifted from pound;15,000 to pound;21,000 and the debt is wiped if it is not paid off within 30 years.

Also, for the first time, part-time students will be eligible for fee loans, enabling them to study and work at the same time without being financially punished.

Martin Lewis, the founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and the head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information, says: "The noise around the huge rise in tuition fees has drowned out the even more dramatic funding changes for part-time study.

"For the first time ever, part-timers won't need to find cash or take commercial loans to pay their tuition fees up front - they will be eligible for student finance loans on the same terms as full-timers," he adds. "This isn't a minor technical point. Contrary to the common image, part-time students make up about a third of the student population and are in the majority at some universities."

Furthermore, students from families earning pound;25,000 or less will see a modest increase in their non-repayable maintenance grants from pound;2,906 to pound;3,250.

And then there is the National Scholarship Programme, which should provide a sweetener to poorer students who are put off by the fees regime. This year, pound;50 million will be ploughed into helping universities provide support to those from families earning less than pound;25,000 a year. The figure, which will have to be match-funded by universities, will rise to pound;150 million over the following two years, we are told.

More bursaries are likely to be available because so many more universities than predicted have decided to charge higher rates of fees. All those charging more than pound;6,000 a year will be legally obliged to demonstrate their financial commitment to improving access.

Some of the richest pickings for students in terms of bursaries inevitably come from the richest universities. This suggests that if you are extremely clever, and extremely hard-up, money is almost certainly not going to be an issue.

One student hoping to thrive at the University of Oxford this year is Abigail Swain, 18, from Exmouth, who is waiting for confirmation of a support package from the university. Her mother was delighted when she received A* grades in chemistry and biology and an A in maths this August. However, the income she receives from the small local ironing service she runs is not enough to support her daughter. In her first year, Swain is hoping for reduced fees and a pound;4,300 bursary, with pound;6,000 fees and a pound;3,400 bursary in subsequent years.

She says that when she first heard about plans to introduce pound;9,000 fees, she thought it was "ridiculous" but was still determined to study. "I had no idea what would be available when I applied to Oxford, but when I looked at what I was eligible for I thought: `Wow, that's amazing.'"

Swain hopes the money will enable her not just to survive, but to take part in some of the activities that her fellow students will be enjoying, so she can experience the social and cultural advantages of going to university as well.

But she warned that she was one of the lucky ones, and the fees regime might lead to some courses in some universities being "wiped out".

"I have a very good academic friend who has decided not to go and is now working in a shop and is thinking of becoming a holiday rep," Swain says. "I've encouraged her to go to university and explained how the loan works, but she is interested in history and the arts and doesn't think it will be worth her while any more."

Overall, the Office for Fair Access (Offa) says universities are increasingly targeting their bursaries at students most in need, a trend that began before the introduction of full fees. And last week its controversial new director, Professor Les Ebdon, said he expected universities to set yet "more challenging targets" for widening access to people from poor backgrounds. Agreements for next year suggest spending on bursaries, scholarships and fee waivers alone will be pound;597.3 million, up from pound;580.6 million this year.

Last year, before the National Scholarship Programme was introduced, overall spending on access was just pound;407 million. Offa also highlights to anyone who will listen examples of the wide range of help available in access agreements.

The University of Salford, for example, is one of many to provide a "community bursary", awarded to students who are local to the area and who may prefer to live at home. Similarly, the University of East London runs its Aspire bursary scheme, providing recipients with a card loaded with "cash" to spend on books, accommodation and other essentials. Most universities are proposing something along similar lines.

"There are far more bursaries available than expected because more charged higher fees than was first thought," Lewis says, although he stresses it is very difficult to compare what different universities are offering. Some offer many smaller sums, while others offer larger amounts to just a few students from very low-income backgrounds.

The way the support packages are distributed also "lacks consistency", he says. He advises university applicants to seek the course they want, then go looking for the bursaries, rather than being led on to an unsuitable course by the promise of money.

"The great danger of marketisation is that people pick courses for the lowest tuition fees and the biggest bursaries, but we encourage people to go on the right course for them," he says.

Funding a `mere fig leaf'

But not everything is rosy. The National Scholarship Programme has come in for some criticism - namely that the money dedicated is not enough.

For example, Professor David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, describes the funding for the scheme as a "mere fig leaf" and "nowhere near enough" to support all the students who qualified for it. As such, the university is putting in pound;3 million of its own money to ensure all students who need it will receive support from 2013.

"So far, we have been giving priority for scholarships to those students who are leaving care, or who have refugee status, with any money left over being distributed on a means-tested basis until it runs out," Green says. "But we have become increasingly concerned at how unfair it is on those who narrowly miss out to limit the number of scholarships. Therefore we have decided to make this commitment, even though money is as tight for us as for other universities."

He now spends a "great deal of time" securing philanthropic donations to offer scholarships to students in their second and third years, to motivate them to do well academically.

Indeed, philanthropic giving is on the rise, and tertiary education is the most popular recipient of donations of pound;1 million or more. The University of Oxford was in the headlines earlier this year, with the announcement of its Moritz-Heyman scholarships after it received the biggest philanthropic gift for undergraduate support in European history. Oxbridge alumnus, venture capitalist and former comprehensive pupil Michael Moritz and his wife Harriet Heyman committed pound;75 million, which will, through match- funding from colleges, allow students from poor backgrounds to have their fees limited to pound;3,500 per year and have all living costs met.

"At present, just under a thousand Oxford undergraduates are in the lowest family income bracket," a university spokeswoman says. "Within three years of its launch this autumn, more than half of these students could benefit from a Moritz-Heyman scholarship."

It is envisaged that eventually all such students will be covered by the scheme or an equivalent. Daniel Heasman, from a single-parent family near Maidstone in Kent, is excited about the possibility of being awarded one of these scholarships, although he will have to wait and see if he has been selected. At the time of writing, he was awaiting confirmation of his support package from Oxford, after being accepted to study physics.

"It takes away the myth that only the upper classes go to good universities," says Heasman, who received four A*s at A level this year. "I thought that at first, but the universities are trying harder now to keep the best students."

But he says many friends who had been in two minds about going to university have opted not to go, and many have been successful in getting jobs.

Tom Levinson, head of widening access at Cambridge University, stresses the support available there as well. "If you are talking about really low income backgrounds and students who are really bright, universities such as Oxford and Cambridge have quite significant packages," he says. "At Cambridge, for good UK students, we don't let finance be a barrier."

He says the key challenge is getting the message out into schools that this is the case: "The idea of students being put off by numbers is something we are at pains to avoid."

But he stressed it was a point of pride that students - from whatever background - very rarely dropped out for financial reasons. "We have to make sure they stay and thrive," he says.

Graduates show resilience in downturns

And even if a student does not manage to score a lucrative scholarship and is forced to survive on a mixture of non-commercial loans and part-time working, experts insist getting a degree will always be a worthwhile investment in the long run. As the economy bumps along the bottom of the muddy fiscal pond, being a student could be a good way to weather some difficult years, too. And research indicates that the job market for graduates is not as stagnant as may have been suggested in the media.

Fiona Waye, policy adviser at Universities UK, an organisation that represents the views of universities across the country, says that while "being a graduate does not make you immune to economic downturns, it's worth pointing out that while youth unemployment is at 20 per cent, graduate unemployment levels are approximately half that".

"Graduates have been shown to be more resilient during downturns and if made unemployed are well-placed to re-enter the jobs market," she adds. "There are also the non-monetary advantages - lifelong friendships and skills, for example."

Lifelong friendships and skills, eh? How terribly old-fashioned. And extremely hard to put a price tag on.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

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