Select Committee on Education and Skills Sixth Report



5. Higher education (HE) as an elite pursuit has in the past been funded by the state at relatively low overall cost. The creation of a mass system of higher education has challenged past assumptions about entitlement to free higher education for full-time undergraduates, particularly in the context of the Government's 50 per cent higher education participation target by 2010.[3]

Who benefits?

6. Successive UK governments have become increasingly unwilling to fund expansion in higher education through general taxation, arguing that the personal benefits to students justify personal financial contributions to the cost of higher education.


7. A high proportion of today's graduates, many of them now parents, did not have to pay fees, they received grants for maintenance and they perceive that they did not depend on loans in order to maintain a satisfactory standard of living. Changing the expectations generated by the experience of a prior system of student support remains a significant challenge.

Social inclusion

8. A very much higher proportion of the children of professional and highly skilled people continue their education beyond the secondary stage than of those from manual and unskilled backgrounds.[4] The Government has committed itself to changing this by achieving higher levels of participation in post­secondary education from among the less advantaged.[5]

Perceived cost and reward

  9. It has been suggested that students from low income groups and no tradition of higher education are deterred from further study by perceptions of high cost and limited final reward.[6] The objective of attracting higher proportions of poor and otherwise disadvantaged students may be frustrated by such perceptions.

Market solutions

10. Recent years have seen increased advocacy for more market driven solutions. The well established USA market for higher education enables universities to charge market fees. 'Needs blind' admission, backed by generous scholarship schemes, supports able students, however impoverished their backgrounds, into higher education.[7] Even so, successive UK governments have been reluctant to create a free market in higher education provision, fearing the consequences for institutions with lower levels of student demand and the possibility of a student backlash. There may be a sense that scholarship aid, even on a generous scale, will not in itself make institutions with higher levels of student demand more inclusive and a belief that disadvantaged students are sometimes put off from applying, not by the cost, but by perception of an unfamiliar and perhaps alien culture.[8] We are mindful that debt is not the only barrier to higher education.

11. Margaret Hodge highlighted the importance of raising both attainment and aspiration levels:

    "We have a three-pronged strategy to tackle the fact that people from lower income groups are not going to university. One is to raise their prior attainment levels and that is the whole of the secondary school agenda for 14­19­year olds, and tackling the staying on rates at 16... Two is this business about raising aspirations, getting young people to aim higher. We have got this really worrying evidence that 44 per cent of people in these lower income groups never hear about university as an option for them whilst they are at school, which suggests that not just their families and their friends but also their teachers and their career advisers are not getting them to aim higher... Three is the issue of debt. We feel that there is probably enough evidence that those from very low income backgrounds are more debt averse than others so that, although we know that higher education is a good investment because of your lifelong earnings and your job opportunities and all those things, there is still that fear in the lower socio­economic groups that it does put people off".[9]

The Dearing objectives

  12. Against this background, we believe that the objectives for student support given in the 1997 report of the National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE), chaired by Sir Ron Dearing (the Dearing Report)[10] remain valid, that is:

    "A student support system for the future should:
  • be equitable, and encourage broadly based participation;
  • require those with the means to do so to make a fair contribution to the costs
    • of their higher education;
  • support lifelong learning, so that choices between part-time and full-time study and for discontinuous study are financially neutral;
  • be easy to understand, administratively efficient and cost-effective".[11]

3   For the purposes of the Government's target, participation is measured using the Initial Entry Rate (IER). This is the sum of all the individual entry rates (new HE entrants as a percentage of the population of each age group) for each year group between 18 and 30. The figures are based on students domiciled in England who enter full or part time higher education in the UK. The IER includes all courses of one year or more, above A level and its equivalents, that lead to a qualification awarded by higher education institutions or widely recognised national awarding bodies. - Department for Education and Skills press notice 2002/0033  Back

4   See Chart "Participation rates in higher education: by social class" at page 19 below Back

5   Department for Education and Skills Departmental Report 2002, Cm 5402, June 2002, page 106 Back

6   The Impact of Student Debt on participation and term-time employment on attainment. What can research tell us? Professor Claire Callender, South Bank University, October 2001, page 4 Back

7   For example, the admissions process at Princeton, which the Education Sub-committee visited in October 2000. Back

8   Initiatives to address the concerned are explored in Social Class and Participation, Universities UK, March 2002 Back

9   Q 230 Back

10   National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE), Higher Education in the learning society, July 1997 Back

11   NCIHE, paragraph 95 Back

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