Apparently Jeremy Corbyn’s kinder, gentler politics do not include telling the truth. Especially when the (already converted) targets of his persuasion are his home faithful at anti-Austerity marches in London. The main danger of his continued claim that the cost of tuition in England dissuades disadvantaged students from attending university is that it sounds correct, and so becomes perfect fodder for sinking into the marshes of conventional wisdom.
Sound correct though it may, the issue is that it isn’t. It is a lie that many believe, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary. I have taken a rather keen interest in defending tuition fees in recent weeks, in part due to the growing list of respected, independent institutions defending them, and in part out of dismay at the vast amounts of ill-informed nonsense spoken on the subject by Labour politicians and Left-wing activists.
The proof that tuition fees do not have a disincentivising effect on poorer students wishing to attend university is incontrovertible. Even the useless Channel 4 News, perhaps to the frustration of Jon Snow, came to the conclusion that Mr Corbyn was wrong on the figures showing disadvantaged student attendance at university. If they can provide this evidence (to which I shall refer in a moment), then Labour ought to as well.
We should first examine the picture across the United Kingdom in order to get some perspective. Scotland does not charge home students tuition fees, though does charge modest fees to students travelling from other parts of the United Kingdom, and appears quite starkly to have the lowest proportion of disadvantaged students attending university amongst all the UK’s constituent countries. The Sutton Trust’s 2016 report Access in Scotland summarised:
“Overall, Scottish universities’ efforts to widen access for students from poorer backgrounds have achieved only partial success. It is not evident from the data that divergence in fee policy has given Scotland any specific advantage compared to other parts of the UK, in relation to increasing overall levels of participation or participation by more disadvantaged groups.”
Please see page 36 of the findings: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Access-in-Scotland_May2016.pdf. They conclusively demonstrate that in comparison to the other, tuition fee-charging constituent countries within the United Kingdom, the acceptance rate of disadvantaged youngsters going to university in Scotland is markedly lower.
The Sutton Trust then add in their key findings:
“The gap in university participation between young people from the most and least advantaged areas is higher in Scotland than in the other home nations. However, Scottish 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are still more than four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the least advantaged areas.”
The agency interviewed Scottish policy-makers, who proposed that:
“Where there is very strong competition for places, reserving a certain number for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds seems to be an effective way of increasing their representation.”
This recommendation seems to imply that direct measures must be undertaken in order to improve representation amongst disadvantaged students. It may be worth remembering that the idea behind scrapping tuition fees in the first place is designed to achieve this goal, as we are constantly told that debt will dissuade those in the poorest quintile, but in Scotland this has clearly failed.
As well as last year’s Sutton Trust report, we also have the work of UCAS to analyse, which has been usefully collated by ‘Full Fact’. The following chart shows that the number of applicants in the most disadvantaged band (quintile 1) has been steadily increasing year upon year right across the kingdom, including after two increases in the cost of tuition (in 2010 and 2012): https://www.ucas.com/file/86936/download?token=tCjSRKFF#page=2
And so, according to their research, has the rate of poorer students attending university been increasing. For those, again in quintile 1, who are considered disadvantaged, proportions are continuing to increase despite constant streams of propaganda and scaremongering about tuition fees. See for instance https://www.ucas.com/file/92746/download?token=4Ij-BMlr#page=26, which shows the current rate of poorer students attending university increasing UK-wide, though some minor disparities crop up between constituent countries.
Full Fact conclude:
“The other measures we’re aware of to look at students from low wage families relate only to the rates of young people going to university (so these are effectively a year behind the application figures). These are all still at record highs, although there has been some levelling off in the growth in the past year or so.”
“The entry rate for state school pupils in England who received free school meals at the age of 15 has continually increased, and is now at a record high of 16.1% (in 2016, up from 15.9% in 2015 and 14.7% in 2014).”
Channel 4 News’ investigation into Mr Corbyn’s claims rebutted much of what he said, though I prefer not to use as much of their information, as it includes charts produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), who later admitted that their class-based data wasn’t particularly reliable.
It is odd to me that the Left would attempt to lure students into lies after twelve months of accusing the Right of engaging in post-truth politics. Of course, not everybody on the Left is culpable. The Economist, which I regard as being liberal and socially Left-wing, noted back in 2015 that “tuition fees are rarely paid up front. Although these add up to a rather hefty sum by the end of a degree, they are provided on generous terms (with repayment delayed until graduates begin earning a reasonable amount). The end result has been that the lowest earning one-third of graduates pay less under the new system and those who earn more, pay more.”
The idea that privatising funding for university and hitting students with the bill for tuition will dissuade poorer students from going to university has been comprehensively debunked. Why does the Labour leader insist on telling lies?