Tu­ition fee cuts hit poorer stu­dents – so­cial mo­bil­ity tsar

The Observer - - News - Michael Sav­age Pol­icy Ed­i­tor

Cut­ting univer­sity tu­ition fees risks fail­ing to help the young peo­ple most in need of help to ac­cess higher ed­u­ca­tion, Theresa May’s new so­cial mo­bil­ity tsar has warned.

Martina Mil­burn, the new chair of the So­cial Mo­bil­ity Com­mis­sion, said she was un­con­vinced that cut­ting fees was the best way to help pupils from poorer back­grounds pros­per.

The warn­ing comes amid sug­ges­tions that a gov­ern­ment-com­mis­sioned re­view of fees will back a cut to £6,500 a year from the cur­rent max­i­mum of £9,250. Such a move would also meet huge op­po­si­tion from uni­ver­si­ties.

In an in­ter­view with the Ob­server, she said abol­ish­ing fees al­to­gether could ac­tu­ally end up dam­ag­ing ac­cess to higher ed­u­ca­tion for some. There have been sug­ges­tions that a free tu­ition pro­gramme in Chile ended up leav­ing uni­ver­si­ties un­der­funded and “crowded out” the stu­dents from the poor­est back­grounds who were the in­tended ben­e­fi­cia­ries.

She sug­gested restor­ing main­te­nance grants de­signed to help poorer stu­dents meet liv­ing costs.

“Cut­ting fees will cer­tainly help a cer­tain sec­tor. Whether it helps the right young peo­ple, I’m not con­vinced,” she said. “There’s also ev­i­dence that if you re­move tu­ition fees al­to­gether, there would be a cer­tain num­ber of young peo­ple from par­tic­u­lar back­grounds who wouldn’t be able to go to univer­sity at all – but if you re­store some­thing like the ed­u­ca­tion main­te­nance al­lowance or a ver­sion of it, I think you would widen par­tic­i­pa­tion. That’s a per­sonal view.

“This is some­thing I think we would def­i­nitely look at in the fu­ture – on whether you re­store some­thing like the main­te­nance grants, which seems to me much more im­por­tant than cut­ting fees.”

A re­view of post-18 ed­u­ca­tion, led by for­mer eq­ui­ties bro­ker Philip Au­gar, is ex­pected to de­liver its find­ings in the new year. There have been sug­ges­tions it could back a tiered sys­tem in which fees are cut for some de­grees but in­creased for sub­jects that lead to higher earn­ings.

Mil­burn, a for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Prince’s Trust, vowed to ex­am­ine the im­pact of uni­ver­sal credit on young peo­ple and so­cial mo­bil­ity.

“Part of the is­sue with some­thing like so­cial mo­bil­ity is you don’t know the ef­fects for 10, 15 maybe 20 years,” she said. “Logic would say that [pub­lic spend­ing cuts since 2010 will af­fect it] and we will see, prob­a­bly dur­ing my ten­ure, so­cial mo­bil­ity get worse and not bet­ter.

“You see child poverty get­ting worse. You know the ef­fect of aus­ter­ity in some areas. So I think the ex­pec­ta­tion will be it will get worse not bet­ter. I just have no data at the mo­ment to say that is the case.”

She was per­suaded to take on the role af­ter the res­ig­na­tion of the com­mis­sion led by Alan Mil­burn, the for- mer Labour cabi­net min­is­ter, who quit with a warn­ing that Brexit was pre­vent­ing the gov­ern­ment from tak­ing is­sues of so­cial mo­bil­ity se­ri­ously.

She said she had se­cured reg­u­lar meet­ings with No 10 to en­sure the agenda was taken se­ri­ously and warned that her com­mis­sion would re­sign if it en­coun­tered the same road­blocks as her pre­de­ces­sor.

She said vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion would be a cru­cial area for her new team, warn­ing that there were prob­lems with the gov­ern­ment’s plans for new “T-Lev­els” and an ap­pren­tice­ship levy on busi­nesses.

“My real beef is en­try to ap­pren­tice­ships. I’ve worked with young peo­ple who, if you of­fered them an ap­pren­tice­ship to­mor­row, wouldn’t be able to take it and it cer­tainly wouldn’t be sustainable, be­cause there’s a whole load of other skills they need.

“De­gree-level ap­pren­tice­ships are the things that have taken off, but are not the things that are go­ing to sort out so­cial mo­bil­ity.”

Martina Mil­burn’s com­mis­sion will look at the im­pact of uni­ver­sal credit.

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