Carole Leathwood guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 October 2010
At last there were signs that things were beginning to change. Data published earlier this year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England showed that the proportion of young people from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods going to university had increased significantly. The commitment of the last Labour government to widen participation in higher education seemed finally to be paying off.
Of course there is still a long way to go – young people from middle class backgrounds are more than twice as likely to participate in higher education as their working class peers – but there was hope that the pernicious relationship between social class and higher education participation might just be waning.
The Browne review –Securing a sustainable future for higher education – has put paid to that and is likely to undo the small amount of progress that has been made. Indeed, I suggest a more fitting title for the report would be “Securing a sustainable future for privilege and elitism”, risking, as it does, a return to the time when only the wealthy and privileged were able to attend university.
My own university, London Metropolitan, has a long and proud history of providing access for under-represented groups. We have almost as many minority ethnic students as the whole of the Russell Group put together, and we top the league table for participation of working class students – who make up 57.2% of our student body. My research has shown the determination of many of these students as they struggled with financial problems and the demands of working long hours during term time. But many also described their experience as life-changing. Stories about how privileged they felt to be at university and how they wanted to inspire their own children and others in their communities to follow in their footsteps were not uncommon.
All of this is at risk. The elite universities are already able to spend considerably more per student on things such as libraries, computing facilities, sports and careers advice than universities such as mine. The pattern of wealthier students going to wealthier universities and poorer students going to the financially less well-off institutions is already established and will be further solidified. This is not just iniquitous, it is immoral, and the moves to an unfettered market proposed by Browne will increase the gap between rich and poor universities.
Furthermore, claims that working class students will not be put off by higher fees are not credible. Research shows that working class, women and some minority ethnic groups tend to be more debt-averse than their white middle class peers, and that financial considerations strongly impact upon decisions of which university to attend – particularly for working class students.
And although repayments will not kick in until graduates are earning salaries of £21,000, the debt will hang over these students for 30 years. High-earning graduates, who are more likely to have attended an elite university and to be male, white and middle class, will be able to pay off their debt sooner and so significantly reduce the amount of interest they have to pay.
Although many students at elite universities will not be happy at the prospect of a significant fee rise, these universities have got precisely what they have been lobbying so hard for – the chance to charge what they want. Browne’s proposals will certainly secure their future, and they also offer bright prospects for private universities whose students will be able to get access to student loans. But they will not secure the future for the rest of the higher education sector.
There are other options for funding higher education. We already spend a lower proportion of gross domestic product on higher education than the OECD average, and many other countries are increasing public investment in their higher education systems in response to the recession. Funding from progressive taxation or by increasing corporation tax to the G7 average, as the University and College Union suggests, are other options.
Browne’s proposals risk not only a return to a two-tier system, but the end of a dream of attending university for many. It is not just the individuals and their families who will lose out. Society as a whole will be poorer for it.
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