Earlier this year, King’s College London Director of Social Mobility and Student Success Anne-Marie Canning made waves with a Guardian op-ed arguing that university tuition fees are a key contributing factor in ensuring higher diversity in the student body.
“When, in 2012, the coalition government introduced the then £9,000 fee regime, what’s little known is that it came with serious regulatory machinery to secure gains in access and participation,” Canning writes in the Guardian. In an interview with Roar, Canning explains that the UK government made diversity schemes a necessary condition for universities who would like to impose a higher tuition fee.
King’s inclusion projects include for example the King’s College London Mathematics School in Lambeth which offers high-quality mathematics education, focusing especially on those who might not otherwise have access to high-quality maths teaching. According to KCL’s website, nearly every student that attends the King’s Maths School goes on to a Russell Group University, with 20% of applicants progressing to Oxbridge.
“If you abolish tuition fees you also abolish the cash that provides the means to support low-income and underrepresented students. And there is scant evidence that higher fees have deterred less-advantaged young people,” Canning writes.
While these programs have proven successful at ensuring higher diversity at King’s, who has the fastest growing population of low-income students in the Russell Group according to Canning’s article, there is very little assurance for students as they exit university with high debts. Speaking to Roar, Canning describes the alumni networks as one of the main ways to help students in their time after graduating.
As the tuition debate rages in the background, it is worth questioning, while the diversity schemes are crucial for fair university access, are they reaching enough people to justify the exit debts of over 27,000 students? And is enough being done to help underprivileged students on the job market when they exit university with debts to pay?
Looking at the widening university participation in the last decade – according to Universities UK, 20.4% of 18-year-old from low participation neighbourhoods entered higher education in 2017, compared to 11.2% in 2006. To what extent the imposition of higher tuition fees has contributed to this figure is not known. Canning speculates that another reason behind the widening participation in the last decade could be the 2009 financial crisis and its implications on the labour market.
These other factors could help explain why universities without tuition fees, specifically Scottish universities has seen a 2% increase in applicants of disadvantaged backgrounds this year, according to University Scotland. Canning comments that “they are still not where you’d expect them to be” in terms of diversity and also points to their lacking support for students once they arrive at university. “What also matters”, Canning argues,” is whether you have enough money to live on and to make the most of your time at university”.
Instead of lowering tuition costs, Canning supports schemes such as “a reintroduction of maintenance grants to the poorest learners which gives a powerful message that the government wants these students to go to university and significantly reduces the strain of their living costs.”
Finding a balance between ensuring equal opportunity and a stable future for students exiting university is clearly not as simple as it may seem. While it is undoubtedly a good initiative by the UK government to ensure a portion of tuition fees as used for equal opportunity, out of the £34 billion collected income by UK universities in 2015-2016, £1.2 billion was used for financial support to students and outreach according to Universities UK. It seems the system is at least a little broken if there is not a way to lower the weights of student debt without making a dent in the small portion of income financing equal opportunities.