We kicked off our first seminar of 2011 with a topic that has barely been out of the media spotlight of late; asking our four speakers, “Will tuition fees discourage disadvantaged students? Will this result in a Higher Education sector that continues to privilege the better-off?”
Answering the question were Professor John Storan, co-Director of Action on Access, Dr Tessa Stone, Chief Executive of BrightsideUNIAID, Wes Streeting, former president of the NUS and now Chief Executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation and Mary Ann Sieghart, weekly columnist in The Independent.
I wondered quite how the four speakers would tackle a discussion about something which has pretty much already been argued to death by the British public. But, as Mary Ann Sieghart and Wes Streeting pointed out, much of the current perception of the raised tuition fees seems to be based on ‘false propaganda’ caused by the rhetoric that is being used in the media. The fact is, students aren’t being asked to pay these fees up front. They will only have to pay them back if they earn over £21,000. So, Mary Ann asked, why are we using the word ‘debt’? If anything, it would be more accurate to call it a ‘Graduate Tax’.
Despite this more positive skew on the tuition fees debate, there was still at times an air of doom and gloom amongst the panel and the audience. With prospective students being forced to choose subjects that are likely to lead well-paid jobs, Dr Tessa Stone expressed her fear for the fate of the humanities (a view echoed by comedian David Mitchell on Channel 4’s new satire show 10 O’Clock Live last week). John Storan worried that the loss of AimHigher would have a damaging effect on widening participation, whilst Mary Ann Sieghart articulated her concern for the ‘squeezed middle classes’.
It was when Wes Streeting highlighted the fact that this was the first time that a government has brought about such a huge change in university access that I realised we can’t really know what to expect. Certainly a key theme seems to be a lack of information, advice and guidance, and this needs to be addressed. Universities will have to raise their game as well if they are to attract students despite the high fees. And, as one attendee at the seminar remarked, the real challenge lies not just in access to H.E. for disadvantaged students, but in retention.