Simon Hughes: Young people have not been put off university …
… but maybe mature students have been?
Simon Hughes, the coalition’s Advocate for Access to Higher Education has just issued a press release following the announcement of today’s UCAS application numbers. He makes a series of very valid points, including that applications for University places are at an all time high (excluing last year), that young people do not appear to have been put off by the headline cost of tuition (which he appears to be arguing acts as a time-limited graduate tax rather than a fee) and that monthly repayments will be lower (but of course, many graduates will pay back more overall and will have to pay contributions for a longer period than at present).
It’s this paragraph which concerns me however. Simon says:
There has been a larger drop in the number of older students applying to university. The Government will have to take a serious look at why this has happened, particularly as mature students for the first time also do not have to pay for their university education in advance.
Now, the trend towards mature students being put off by the increase in fees (at least for full time courses in traditional universities, which is what the UCAS figures cover) has been apparent for some time, so it’s somewhat disappointing that the Advocate for Access to Higher Education only just appears to have noticed. He’s obviously not a fan of this blog.
But what is more alarming is the assertion that for the first time, mature students do not have to pay for their university education in advance. He presumably is talking about “in England” too. It’s a false assertion for two reasons:
1. If you are a student in England studying for a first degree today, then it would appear that entitlement to finance is exactly the same regardless of whether you are 18, 38 or 83. The crucial difference seems to be whether you are a full time or part time student – not your age. All part time students currently have to pay up front (unless they qualify for funding on the basis of a means test).
2. It’s also false if you are an ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) student – which many mature students are. You do still have to pay up front under the new regime, regardless of whether you are studying full time or part time. Anyone who wants to re-train for a new career or study for personal development reasons is hit very hard indeed by this, despite both of the coalition parties being opposed to such discrimination against ELQ students when in opposition. For example, the impact for England-resident, new Open University students from October will be a fees rise from around £750 to an eye-watering £2,500 per 60 credit module.
But Simon’s right about one thing in this paragraph.
The government will have to take a hard look at providing loans for mature and ELQ students. I suspect the first casualties if they don’t could well be the Open University and perhaps Birkbeck, who both have a significant proportion of their current undergraduate cohort in this position.
And a quick note to fellow Lib Dem Mark Pack – mature students have noticed and we are talking about the problems caused by changes in HE funding. It’s just that no-one seems to be listening yet. However, there are currently more than 46,000 signatures on this petition, so perhaps someone at BIS will begin paying attention soon.