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Money matters for higher education access

Prospective students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are now "far more likely" to be discouraged from applying to university because of a fear of debt than those with the same grades from wealthier backgrounds.

New research indicates that prospective students’ attitudes towards taking out student loan debt are generally more favourable now than they were in the early 2000s, but that this is not the case when looking just at those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

This demographic are now "far more likely" to be discouraged from applying to university because of a fear of debt than those with the same grades from a wealthier background.

The study was conducted by Claire Callender, Professor of Higher Education Policy at Birkbeck and Deputy Director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at UCL Institute of Education (IOE), and Geoff Mason, Visiting Professor of Social Science at the IOE.

It aimed to compare attitudes to higher education among prospective undergraduates in 2002 with similar students in 2015 and to assess if attitudes had changed over time. In 2002 some students, especially those from a disadvantaged background, were deterred from applying to university because of a fear of debt. Callender and Mason wanted to find out if that was still the case today.

The earlier 2002 study, also co-authored by Callender, found that "ethnic minority, first-generation, and lower-class students appeared particularly wary about taking on debt to pay for HE." The results of the later 2015 research indicated that "debt-averse attitudes remain much stronger among lower-class students than among upper-class students, and more so than in 2002… money matters for HE access and lower-income students are more price sensitive."

However, when you look at the full spectrum of students from different socio-economic backgrounds, attitudes to taking on student loan debt are generally more favourable in 2015 than they were in 2002, and participation in higher education in England has increased overall despite rises in tuition and student loan debt.

What this research crucially shows is that fear of debt still deters students who are already under-represented in HE. It also suggests that England’s student funding system, "predicated on the accumulation of student loan debt, potentially undermines widening participation policies rather than broadening and equalizing HE participation." (2015 research)

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the country was at a ‘crucial point’ in the debate about social mobility in i News. He added that "the different political parties all say they want to reduce the level of pre-determination in people’s lives but they can’t agree on how to do so. Now is the time for everyone who wants a brighter future to put social mobility at the heart of the political agenda."

So what can governments do to make applying to university a more appealing prospect for students from lower-income families? This question is especially pertinent in the midst of a general election campaign, where many prospective UK students will be voting for the first time. And do universities have a role to play in reducing or allaying the fears of debt that some students hold?

According to Callender, "We must not be complacent and think that just because higher education participation rates have increased, despite the rise in fees and debt, that these don’t matter or influence participation. We need to think carefully about how we can reduce students’ debt levels, especially for the poorest students. According to the government’s latest estimates the poorest full-time students are likely to leave university with student loan debts of over £58,000.  And they have no choice but to take out loans if they want to go to university.  We could consider abolishing fees altogether as suggested by some political parties in their election manifestos. Or we could means-test tuition fees and reinstate grants for both tuition fees and living costs for students from low-income backgrounds."

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