British Social Attitudes Survey: 3 in 4 people support tuition fees

Considering the large amount of student protest and backlash from the public against raising tuition fees in the last decade, you would be forgiven for thinking that the public are not in favour them. However a recent paper from NatCen’s British Social Attitudes series (BSA) shows that more than three quarters of people in England think at least some students or their families should pay tuition fees.

The paper, ‘British Social Attitudes: The Verdict on Five Years of Coalition Government’ highlights public opinion on university grants, loans, fees and higher education opportunities in a 21 page section on higher education. The paper examines data up to and including British Social Attitudes 2014.

Since 2004 BSA have asked who should pay towards tuition costs; all students or their families, some students or their families or no students or their families. In 2013, 67% of people thought that some students should, 11% of people thought that all students should and only 21% of people thought no students should pay. Surprisingly these levels have barely differed since 2004 where numbers were almost the same.

More surprising still is the level of support for tuition fees in Scotland where Scottish students pay no tuition fees to Scottish universities. 3/4 people in Scotland believe that at least some students should pay towards tuition fees and only 26% thought no students should pay. In 2000, 38% of people thought no students should pay.

The opinion on tuition fees varies by party, according to the paper: 24% of Labour supporters think that no students should pay for tuition costs compared to 18% of Conservatives, 17% of Liberal Democrats and 12% of UKIP supporters. In Scotland, only 25% of SNP supporters favour their policy of free higher education.

The paper also shows support from people in England for grants. When asked who should get grants to help cover their living costs, 65% of people thought that some students should and 26% of people thought that all students should get grants. Just 4% of those asked thought no students should get a grant.

There is a difference of opinion about student loans with 46% of people in England believing that students should be expected to take out loans to cover living costs and 37% believing it should not be expected. Younger generations appear to be more accepting of student loans with 52% of 18-29 year olds thinking students should be expected to take out loans, compared to 39% of those over 80.

Most (57%) people in England do support means tested grants, with only 25% thinking the system is unfair. Interestingly more people on lower incomes than those on higher incomes feel students should not be expected to take out loans (43% to 30%).

Looking at university places, the report finds that only 12% of people think that opportunities for young people to go onto higher education should be reduced. However, support for expanding places has dropped a little, at 39% today compared with between 44% and 50% from 1983 to 2003. 43% of people believe that there are too many graduates in the UK labour market and 13% think that there are not enough.

Exploring opinions by party, the paper finds that 47% of Labour supporters think higher education opportunities should be increased compared to 40% of Liberal Democrats, 32% of UKIP and 28% of Conservative supporters.

The paper shows that more people value practical skills than academic results, a balance that has shifted since 2005. In 2014, 51% of people thought that in the long-run, having good practical skills and training gives more opportunities and choice in life compared to 13% of people who favoured having good academic results. In 2005 this balance was 45% practical to 22% academic.

A majority of people (57%) think that a well-off young person would be more likely to take up a university place. Half of those asked disagreed with the statement that, “a university education is affordable for all young people, regardless of their family background”, 36% agreed.

Just 28% of people in England think that a degree is value for money, 51% think it is not. This varies by age and young people appear to be most skeptical of the cost, with 24% of those aged 18-39 thinking a degree is not value for money. Those aged 40-59, are barely more optimistic with 27% thinking a degree is value for money. But the figure rises in the older generations with 31% of 60-69 year olds, 37% of 70-79 year olds and 40% of those aged over 80 believing a degree is good value for money.

In its conclusion, the paper finds that there is consistency of opinions on higher education in England. While there is some division of opinion on loans and grants, two thirds of people favour  at least some students or their families paying fees and there is widespread belief that opportunities for young people to go onto higher education should not be reduced. The paper concludes with the suggestion that “it could be a political risk for any new government to bring an end to expansion. And since expansion entails costs that must be borne, either by individuals or the state, we can safely conclude that the issue of higher education finance will remain politically charged for many years to come.”

The paper also reveals that only 29% of people prefer a coalition to a single party government, compared with 45% in 2007.

Find the full paper along with key findings here.

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