Guest post by Hannah
The admission that I did not pay any form of fees to attend university frequently confuses my peers. I watch their quizzical expressions as they try to ascertain if I’m a secret thirty-something. It seems there’s been a collective forgetting or ongoing ignorance of the fact that until recently many undergraduates from poorer backgrounds were exempt from fees. We really need to be aware of how much the university system is changing, even in its most dull and bureaucratic details.
In this post, I find out exactly what the financial impact of the proposed new fees system would be on students from the lowest income backgrounds. I’m no mathematician but even with some simple sums there is unequivocal evidence that poorer students will be worse off under the new fees system despite (or even because of) attempts by universities such as Cambridge to lessen the cost for the less well-off. A closer look at the numbers also reveals the increasing yet largely unspoken of disparity between the financial situation of poorer students attending rich universities and those at less wealthy institutions.
Let’s start with the whole ‘no fees’ thing. Fees were first introduced in 1998 (hence the fee-free thirty-somethings) but as late as 2005, the year I began university, the £1000ish annual fees were paid by Local Education Authorities for students from low-income backgrounds. With an annual family income of below £25,000 I received no bill for fees, a full maintenance loan from the Student Loan Company (approximately £14,850 over three years), a £1000 annual bursary from the government and an additional £1000 bursary from Cambridge University, leaving me with a net debt of -£8,850, excluding student loan interest.
The controversial introduction of £3,000 top-up fees in 2006 was widely lauded by many universities as a move that actually made low-income students better off. Poorer students were no longer exempt from paying fees, but due to the provision of £2,906 annual busaries from the government and £3,400 annual busaries from Cambridge University, had I begun university one year later I would have left with £3,108 less debt.
Yet this does not give us the full picture. As observed by the Sutton Trust’s recent survey, students from low-income backgrounds are signifcantly underrepresented at Britain’s wealthiest universities. Under the current fees system had I instead attended, say, Kent University, which provides a £1000 annual bursary to its poorest students (£200 more than average), I would have been £7,200 worse off than an equivalent student at Cambridge. This disparity in financial circumstances was already in existence prior to the introduction of top-up fees, but under the current system has more than doubled.
Clegg in his recent defence of the £9,000 fee hike spoke of an existing ‘two tier’ system, yet the above manifestation of inequality is rarely acknowledged. Great emphasis is placed upon trying to increase the access of disadvantaged students to the most elite institutions: yet what of ensuring the financial viability of studying at any university, not just those with eight-hundred year-old endowments to hand?
Returning to the title, will poorer students under the new system be worse off? Simply, the answer is yes. Students from low-income backgrounds (below £25,000 per year) attending Cambridge University will up to £7,391 worse off than their peers who are already there under the current system. This is based on the assumption that a student receives both Cambridge’s promised annual £3,000 fee discount and £1,625 bursary, in addition to £3,000 from the government’s proposed National Scholarship Programme, a scheme which may not even be in place in time for the first batch of £9,000 fee students.
Both the coalition government and the elite universities have tried to reassure us that access and provision for poorer students will not be compromised: however there is no doubt that poorer students will be at considerable financial disadvantage in comparison with the current system.
Through letting the wealthiest institutions frame the debate on fees and funding we also leave room for the disparity between poor students at rich universities and those less privileged to increase yet further.
The two recent shifts in tuition funding demonstrate a changing relationship between poorer students and fees: while under the first fees regime the poorest students were exempt, under the £3,000 top-up system the poorer students were responsible for paying fees, yet from some universities received such substantial bursaries that they were in effect fee-free. Cambridge’s current plans shift money from bursaries to fee-discounts, therefore replacing the emphasis on supporting poorer students with penalising them just a little bit less.