Experts claim that the poorest and most disadvantaged students will be disproportionately affected by upcoming reforms to university access and funding in the UK.
Reforms to the current student loans system which was announced on February 18th, means that students will pay more over a longer period if they wish to go to university. And those in middle- and low-income brackets will be most strongly affected. In addition, it appears likely that newly raised minimum entrance criteria will further reduce university attendance amongst currently under-represented groups.
These changes call in to question the priorities of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the ‘levelling up’ policy which formed the core of his election manifesto in 2019, which supposedly aims at lessening inequalities. Driving these proposals is the notion that the sole rationale for higher education consists of improving employability, when in fact studying at university should not be so narrowly focused.
Under the proposed reforms, the period of loan repayment will extend from 30 to 40 years and the earnings threshold for beginning repayments will be lowered. A doubling in the percentage of students able to fully repay their student debt, rising from 23% to 52%, is projected to result from this.
Worries regarding the increasing public debt caused by outstanding student loans are inspiring these changes, but the result will likely be a significant impact on poorer students, who are already less likely to obtain higher-paid employment after graduation.
In the words of David Robinson at the Education Policy Institute, a think tank, “These policies are likely to result in lower to middle earning graduates paying more than they currently do, while higher earning graduates are likely to pay less,” Given that disadvantaged students are under-represented in good schools, the plan to up the entrance criteria based on English and math standard attained at age 16 will also serve to exacerbate inequalities. These same students are, in addition, more susceptible to the loss of learning caused by the pandemic and subsequent school closures
David Robinson says that those affected by the proposals will be those least able to cope with them, “Students from low-income families, black students and those from parts of the North and the West Midlands could be most affected by these changes”, he added. “Many of these students will be applying for university in the next few years will also have experienced considerable learning loss as a result of the pandemic.”
A chance has been missed to create a more equitable university finance system, says Sir Peter Lampl, whose organization, the Sutton Trust, advocates against educational inequality. “Minimum entry requirements to access student finance will inevitably impact poorer students the most, as they are less likely to do well at school,”, he elaborated. A view of education as simply the means to higher paid work appears to guide the governments thinking.
The higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, recently unveiled a plan to sanction universities providing courses for which 60% of graduates fail to secure high-wage careers or further education, characterizing these courses as ‘low-quality’. Not only does this display a lack of care within government for the students they claim to want to support, it also demonstrates a narrowly focused view of education as simply a means to an end, i.e. better-paid work.
While it is common for students to peruse employment rate statistics when choosing a university and course of study, this is far from the only consideration important to their choice. Likewise, giving thought to the likely salary they can expect when graduating from a given course is sensible, but this shouldn’t make or break someone’s decision to pursue a degree. Already an issue, the upshot of this pragmatic view of education will be to reinforce the class divide in non-vocational, creative subjects that typically have less robust employment and salary prospects, with the most deprived becoming even less visible on these courses.
A degree should be about so much more than a reductive cost-benefit analysis; it could be said that all education should also be about exploration and discovery, about widening one’s horizons, following passions and realizing potential. Unquestionably, prospective students are right to seek out a course that will add value to their lives, but money is not the only currency to be gained at university.
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