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 Packmature 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.

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Reader Comments

  1. Dawn

    Great post, Tim. My sister has decided not to go ahead with her OU degree because she simply can’t finance it. The whole thing with the OU saddens me because the OU has always been founded upon a radical open admissions policy, offering people a route to university that had perviously been closed to them. I wonder what Willy Russell (Educating Rita) would have to say on the matter. Actually, where is Willy Russell?

  2. Mark Pack

    Tim: One possibility which I’ve not (yet?) seen any real evidence presented about is the extent to which mature students are deciding to switch from full time to part time study. As today’s figures exclude mature part time study that could explain some of the fall – and would also be a switch that should be expected given that the government has just introduced tuition fee loans for part time mature students, meaning they no longer have to pay fees up front.

    I’d be surprised if that explained all of the fall in mature full time applications, but it would be a bit surprising if making part time study more attractive financially by removing the up front payment hadn’t had any impact.

    Have you seen any good data on this so far?

    • tim

      Hi Mark,

      What I have seen with respect to part time study (for mature students or otherwise) has been through my own experience of the OU. Within the student association forums there is huge concern being expressed by students about the change from module based registration to qualification named registration. This change appears to signal that it will become increasingly difficult to take individual modules without linking them to a degree, which is what many mature students do. For example, I took a 60 credit business studies module way back in 1990 – with no intention of completing the MBA. Changes like that, coupled with the reduction in 10 point starter courses being offered, more compulsory level 1 study even for people looking to take a second degree – which of course increases the cost still further, the removal of named science degrees, cuts to residential schools, the move away from face to face tutorials, the cancellation of the entire social sciences masters syllabus (so losing 8,000 students a year) … all mean that the appeal of the OU is less than it used to be for mature students – particularly for the 25% or so of the 250,000 student body who don’t currently qualify for loans as we already have an ELQ.

      In an attempt to replace some of that lost revenue, the OU is undertaking a massive advertising campaign at the moment – seemingly aimed at the 18-25 age group who are still worried about the impact of the up to £9k annual fee elsewhere.

      Hard data will be difficult to come by for a little while yet. As the OU is outside of UCAS, they manage their own admissions. So unless they publish their data as the recruitment process for October goes on, no-one will know the true impact on numbers until later this year. As far as I’m aware, the OU have never released application numbers as the process goes on. Even then it may be difficult to understand the true impact until later in 2013 – as many OU modules start late January/ early February.

  3. David

    According to Willy he ‘continues to live and work in his home city of Liverpool and is currently working on a number of projects’.

Your thoughts?