Higher education and the 2019 election: What might it mean for widening participation?

Posted in: Education, Political ideologies, Public services, UK politics

Dr Matt Dickson is a Reader in Public Policy at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR), University of Bath.

You won’t have needed to read many newspapers in the last few weeks to realise that Brexit and the future of the NHS are the main shows in this election town, and so manifesto pledges on higher education (HE) are unlikely to prove decisive one way or another.

That said, the Liberal Democrats’ U-turn on tuition fees in 2010 represents a ghost of elections past and serves to remind the parties that unfulfilled pledges on HE can come back to haunt you.

As such, it’s worth looking at what the main parties are committing themselves to on HE ahead of the polls on 12 December, and in particular consider what this might mean for widening participation.

The Conservative party

The main proposals are to:

  • “Carefully consider” the Augar review’s recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education, apprenticeships, and adult learning, and “look at” the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students.
  • Improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students.
  • Explore ways to tackle the problem of grade inflation and low-quality courses.
  • Require the Office for Students (OfS) to look at universities’ success in increasing access across all ages, not just young people entering full-time undergraduate degrees.

Overall, it’s not obvious what the Conservative’s priorities or concrete proposals for HE reform are. As they promised in 2017 they’ve had an independent review of post-18 education but are yet to respond to the recommendations, and from the manifesto it’s unclear the extent to which they will implement Augar.

The nod towards reduced interest rate on loans (i.e. the Augar recommendation not to apply interest until after graduation) suggests this will be implemented, but other than that the language is around “careful consideration” - so no firm indication of what else they will actually do.

On widening participation and access, there is a commitment that the approach to change will be guided by “fairness, quality of learning and teaching and access” and there is the pledge that the OfS will look at access across all ages, which is a positive proposal for widening participation. There is little to disagree with here but perhaps that’s because there is little concretely proposed. Improving the system for matching students to courses should have positive implications for widening participation but without detail as to what this would involve, the impact can’t really be assessed.

The ambition to tackle the problem of ‘low-quality courses’ is similarly vague and raises worrying questions about how ‘quality’ will be determined and by whom, and which students will be most affected by this. Most obviously, without knowing which of Augar’s recommendations will be actioned, we can’t draw conclusions on whether changes in the headline areas of tuition fees, grant funding to HE and graduate repayments, will be positive for under-represented groups or not.

The Labour party

The main proposals are to:

  • Abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students.
  • Develop a new funding formula for HE that ensures all institutions have adequate funding for teaching and research, widens access to HE and reverses the decline in part-time study.
  • Transform the OfS from a market regulator to a governing body of the National Education Service, working in the public interest.
  • Introduce post-qualification admissions in higher education, and work with universities to ensure contextual admissions are used across the system.

It is very clear where Labour’s HE priorities lie and they have made some clear proposals. As at the last election, Labour headlines in HE are dominated by the plan to abolish tuition fees and also bring back maintenance grants for the most disadvantaged students. The impact of both would be to reduce students’ debts on graduation whilst leaving their cash support from the government whilst studying unchanged (the current maintenance loans becoming grants). Financially the greatest beneficiaries of these proposals would be high earning graduates who would have less to repay, with the middle and low earning graduates – many of whom do not currently pay off all of their debts – largely unaffected in terms of actual repayments despite the lower notional debt level.

There are however implications for widening participation in that the cost of the fee abolition policy is estimated to be around £6.5bn per cohort and it is not clear what the overall consequences would be if this reduction in university income was exactly offset by the government through increased grant funding. There’s no such thing as a free lunch or a free university education, so this £6.5bn extra outlay is likely to cause contractions somewhere in the system. The £6.5bn may also be an underestimate given the likely effect on demand of free tuition and the current system of no cap on student numbers. Reintroduction of a cap would however likely disproportionately disadvantage lower income students and hinder their access to HE.

Importantly though, the scrapping of tuition fees and the return of maintenance grants would apply to part-time as well as full-time students (adding another £1bn to the cost of the policy) - something that would be beneficial for widening participation, as it has the potential to reverse the decline in part-time study under the current fees and loans arrangements that have hit the most disadvantaged hard.

While the value of repayments may not be affected for many graduates under Labour’s plan, the psychological impact could be large, with previous research suggesting that an increase in grant funding as opposed to loans has a large impact on HE participation, particularly amongst low-income households who are most debt averse. As such these proposals on fees and grants could see a real boost to widening participation and social mobility, though the finer details will be important.

Like the Conservatives, Labour mention the OfS but it is unclear how they see its continuing role, and thus how effectively it can operate to enhance widening participation. In terms of direct widening participation pledges, there is the commitment to widen access to HE, reverse declines in part-time study, and also to ensure that contextual admissions are used across the sector. The latter has the potential to make a real difference to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Recent work has shown that reducing the typical offer from a highly selective institution by two grades (say from ABB to BBC) for students from low-income backgrounds could lead to a 50% increase in attendance of such students at these institutions, a huge forward step for social mobility. There is also the specific proposal to change to a post-qualification admissions system, something that again has the potential to have a real positive impact on widening participation.

At present students decide where to apply and universities make offers on the basis of predicted grades. Overall only 16% of these predictions are accurate, and more importantly there is a social gradient in predicted grades with high-achieving, disadvantaged students more likely than their better off peers to be under-predicted. This feature of the pre-qualification admissions system means that widening participation students consistently end up on less academically selective courses, and courses with lower graduate earnings than their ability would allow them to access. This academic undermatching in HE is something that could be substantially reduced should a post-qualification system be introduced.

The Liberal Democrats

The main proposals are to:

  • Establish a review of HE finance in the next parliament to consider any necessary reforms in light of the latest evidence of impact of the existing financing system on access, participation and quality.
  • Ensure that all universities work to widen participation by disadvantaged and underrepresented groups across the sector, prioritising their work with students in schools and colleges, and require every university to be transparent about selection criteria.
  • Reinstate maintenance grants for the poorest students, ensuring that living costs are not a barrier to disadvantaged young people studying at university.
  • Raise standards in universities by strengthening the OfS, to make sure all students receive a high-quality education.

Perhaps burnt by the previous damage caused by concrete commitments on tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats are playing it cautious in this area, committing only to a review of HE finance. Given we have only recently had the Augar review that covered this extensively, this seems unnecessarily circumspect. As with the Conservatives, it also means we don’t know their plans regarding the headline issues of tuition fees, HE funding and graduate debt.

As outlined above, the commitment to reinstating maintenance grants is a big positive for widening participation, as is the pledge to improve access by requiring universities to work with students in schools and colleges, and make their selection criteria more transparent. Research shows that it is the students from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups who are less able to navigate the often opaque application and admissions system, so any move toward greater transparency will likely boost widening participation.

Again the OfS gets a namecheck but as with Labour’s plans, it is not clear how the Liberal Democrats envisage the powers and remit of the OfS going forward. There’s a commitment to ‘strengthen’, though given the commitment of OfS to ensuring widening participation, this should prove a positive move for widening access.

Overall, from a widening participation perspective there are some really positive proposals on the table from each of the parties, with the potential for some positive changes whoever takes the keys to No.10. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are guarded on the big questions of tuition fees and student finances, and it’s only Labour who have really spelled out their plans - and even then, the full implications would not be known without more information on the new funding formula for the sector.

The last few years have been a political rollercoaster and HE has not escaped the turbulence: six different ministers for universities in the last four years, two of whom have left and then returned. Despite this turnover, there have been quite a few changes implemented – including adjustments to loan repayments, the introduction of the teaching excellence framework and the creation of the OfS. So whatever else the coming election throws up, the only thing that’s likely to be constant in this space, is more change.

This blog is part of the IPR 'General Election 2019' blog series. Visit the IPR blog to read more. 

Posted in: Education, Political ideologies, Public services, UK politics


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