Tuition fee cuts hit poorer students – social mobility tsar
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.