THERE is little evidence that the SNP’s abolition of tuition fees has encouraged poorer people to go to university or that the UK Government’s £9,000-a-year fee increase has deterred them, according to researchers.
The Scottish Government’s abolition of tuition fees “has not been redistributive in its effect”, researchers at Edinburgh University have found.
England has seen “a slight increase in the proportion of applications from students from poorer backgrounds” since the £9,000 a year tuition fees were introduced, the researchers found in a submission to the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Future of the UK and Scotland independence referendum research project.
The Scottish Government says it offers “the best and simplest support package in the UK” but funding packages for poorer students “are considerably more generous elsewhere in the UK”, the researchers said.
The ESRC’s Widening Access to Higher Education report states: “The increase in fees in England in 2010, particularly as reported in the media, increased the perception that university might be ‘too expensive’, and young people from less socially advantaged backgrounds were more likely to be put off from applying as a result.
“However, analysis of UCAS data by the Independent Commission on Student Fees suggests that there has been a slight increase in the proportion of applications from students from poorer backgrounds, accompanied by a decline in applications from mature students in England.
“Interestingly, in Scotland, where there are no undergraduate fees, and in Wales, where the impact of fees is offset by the Welsh Government, there has been no decline in applications by mature students.”
Holyrood’s Post-16 Education Act 2013 imposes financial penalties on institutions deemed to have achieved insufficient progress in relation to widening access.
The report states: “The Scottish Government has introduced what it describes as ‘the best and simplest support package in the UK’. However, the amount of funding available to poorer students in grant aid has diminished, and there is very little difference in the overall funding package available to students from more and less socially advantaged backgrounds.
“In addition, funding packages available to students from poorer backgrounds are considerably more generous elsewhere in the UK.
“Scotland has adopted a universalist approach to HE funding, treating all students virtually the same irrespective of family background, but this has not been redistributive in its effect.”
Less than a tenth of pupils in Scotland and England go to private school but they make up over two-fifths of pupils at Oxford and Cambridge and a fifth of pupils at Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews and Glasgow universities.
Students from professional and managerial backgrounds are much more likely to study in ancient universities, while socially deprived students are more likely to study in universities established after 1992, it said.
“There has been little change in institutional profiles over time,” according to the report.
“The abolition of the graduate endowment in Scotland in 2008 has not led to increased representation of students from more socially deprived backgrounds in universities.
“It is still too early to be sure of the impact of much higher deferred fees in England, but early analysis from the Independent Commission on Student Fees suggests that there has not been a drop in applications from students from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds, although such students were poorly represented in the first place.
“Analyses of the earlier fee increase in 2006 similarly suggested that this did not increase social inequalities in participation.”
Professor Sheila Riddell, ESRC research fellow, said: “Universities and the Westminster and Scottish governments have the stated ambition of widening access. That’s the intention.
“Scotland has been slightly behind England in initiatives aimed at widening access in the past, and it is now placing more emphasis on this issue. But we continue to see students from more advantaged backgrounds over-represented at the most selective higher education institutions in Scotland and England.”