£9k fees, social class and arguments for the left

As a student activist who was involved in fees protests back in 2011 (and earlier) one of the arguments we put forward then was the debt aversity amongst students from working class backgrounds would mean those students simply wouldn’t apply. This was, and to some extent, remains, a naive argument. Not because debt doesn’t matter or because it is not disproportionately a fear for working class students. Both those things are still true. What we underestimated is that university was and still is the only and best game in town for young people. Immediately after “top-up” fees of £3,000 were introduced in 2006, there was a dip in applicants the following year but after that year applicant numbers continued to rise (UCAS, 2012: 15). The same thing happened after 2012-13. Whilst the gaps between rich and poor in acceptance to elite universities remain huge, the evidence also shows that things seem to be going in the right direction, i.e. the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds is increasing more quickly than for those from advantaged backgrounds (UCAS, 2014: 79). This leads to the usual crowing celebration on the right that the class-segmented and increasingly neo-liberal university system works and in particular that the palliative widening participation (WP) measures are working.

On the latter point, I would agree that certain forms of WP work are effective and at best, quite brilliant. There are broader issues with WP work which, whilst necessary and, even, emancipatory at an individual level, sometimes inadvertently provide a social alibi for a university system which remains heavily segregated by class and race. However, what matters here is that student activists on the left have a response to the fees issue. When asked, but why are working class young people still applying to university with £9k fees – what do you say? There is some data which provides at least a partial response to this.

After the 2012-13 fee increase, UCAS (2012) produced a report looking at the effect of the fee increase. The take home finding is arguably that there is little difference in the types of choices about courses 18 year-old students were making before and after the fee rise. But what it did show is that disadvantaged students (whether you look at postcode-based measures, income or social class) on average apply to courses with a lower cost, which is what the graph below shows (Source: UCAS, 2012: 13).

What you can’t say from that is that the fee rise has meant people from working class backgrounds are choosing cheaper courses. The data only refers to one year when the system was operating with the new fees (the previous years’ of data in the graph come from linking courses to their new 2012 fee). Higher fees may now be part of the reason people choose courses this data strongly suggests that there is something to debt aversity in affecting the choices people make about going to university. In my interviews with young people this is often combined with a decision to stay at home and attend the local, often “post-1992” university.

What the data really shows is the deep rooted inequality which remains, i.e. working class students apply for cheaper, often ‘less prestigious’ courses at the, so-called, ‘new’ universities. Under the new graduated fee system, which isn’t very graduated, there is some reflection of ‘prestige’ in fee cost. What is probably happening is some savvy realpolitik in certain universities, who set their fees with some awareness that cost is an issue for their less priviliged intake of students. Fee-levels are thus a reflection of how our universities are differentiated by intake and arguably are acting to reinforce institutional hierarchies.

Where does this leave the student activist in the argument with the right-wing hack? To answer the part of the argument about fees which relates to social class background on entry to university, we can say that debt aversity matters. The fee increase might not have changed behaviour, but by reinforcing the differentiation between different universities, it seems likely to have reinforced differences in where and to what course people are applying to in a way which varies by class. Yes disadvantaged students are still applying to university, but we have to respond that the blunt inequality in the proportions of students applying and in particular where students off different backgrounds apply and are accepted is still horrific. The fee system also provides yet another marker which reinforces the institutional hierarchy of different universities. This is an incredibly backward step. If greater fee flexibility were introduced it is highly likely that this would in absolute terms, continue to exacerbate differences between universities.

Where I think the rot sets in and a left-position becomes harder to defend when talking about fees, and education more generally, is if we slip into a discourse which accepts, even implicitly, that individual aspiration and social mobility are what matter. Of course people still want to go to university, no matter what the fees are, and of course it is a good thing that disadvantaged students are continuing to apply in greater numbers. But this only works on an individual level. The logic of fees and individualizing how we pay for education pushes us further and further away from the argument that education is a collective good. The real dilemma for a left-position on schooling and education is how to turn people’s individual hopes and, especially for the middle classes, anxieties about education into a collective push for a more egalitarian system. If there is a reason for optimism about the current fee system, it lies in the levels of debt and the strong likelihood future generations will not pay it off. The free education demo just before Christmas provides hope that the £9k generation will find a collective voice over this. Finding the (party) political will to change the system will be harder still, but I for one still believe.