The current government’s argument that student loans widen participation is misleading, argues Claire Callender, whose new research finds that debt aversion is stopping the poorest from applying to university.
This morning David Willetts took the airwaves to float the idea of ‘off-quota’ places at university. Not a new idea by any means, but an interesting indication of the direction of travel for the HE White Paper which most now expect in the first half of June. On the one hand, there is a sound political argument for leaking out policy initiatives in this way; it can have the effect of softening up the ground for when the big one drops later on.
But David Willetts has underestimated the toxicity of a policy like this which touches a very raw nerve indeed. Still wounded by the fees and funding settlement, this policy will feel like a kick in the teeth to those still clinging on to the idea that access to HE should never depend on the ability to pay. The ‘free at the point of use’ principle, still hanging on by its finger-nails, ensured that there was always going to be the greatest strength of feeling against the deep cuts to the teaching grant. The ensuing high fees for many felt like the sad, but necessary consequence of this – softened by continued commitment not to charge up-front fees.
As someone who was brought up in working class surroundings and was the first in my family to move permanently out of Wales, let alone go to University, I get frustrated when (albeit well meaning) journalists, HE representatives etc. speak as though student fees are the only factor that will inform the decisions of people like me about whether to go to university.