This autumn, for the second year in a row, the number of young people going to university will fall. Three years on from the decision to increase tuition fees, the coalition's promise that the hike in the cost of higher education would help universities and not hinder applicants has been found wanting. Whether there was ever any hope that the prospect of higher student debt would be ignored by applicants is largely irrelevant. The fact is that while a degree, often followed by unpaid work as an intern, is still a prerequisite for the majority of jobs the number of people entering the university assembly line is falling.
Over a lifetime a degree from a Russell Group university can result in an individual earning up to £252,000 more than a non-graduate (according to a government study cited by the Independent in August). As seen below, a degree also opens up a massive range of job opportunities that are not readily available to those who shun university. But, showing a level of financial restraint that many a bank chairman should take note of, the huge debt associated with university is something fewer and fewer students want. Perhaps this is because, unlike policy makers who are universally middle aged, middle class and comfortable, prospective students who are still used to working Sunday jobs and searching through their possessions for loose change, going deep into debt is not an option. One must remember that the combination of both tuition fees and maintenance payments amounts to the kind of loan most people are not likely to build up, unless and until they take out a mortgage. Hanging over this prospective debt is the harsh truth that for almost all students, especially those studying in London, the termly cheque from the Student Loans Company does not cover the full cost. A recent article in the New Statesman calculated a shortfall of just over £1,000 per year for those who receive the largest maintenance grants possible. This then presents students with another choice, between menial minimum wage work or an ever growing overdraft, to pay the bills. Can anyone really be surprised that faced with this scenario, more school leavers are opting to get the work they can at eighteen? By the time their class mates who chose differently graduate, they will find themselves debt free and, with a little luck, a number of rungs higher on the employment ladder.
Most politicians, perhaps most people, may now disagree with Tony Blair's assertion that everyone should go to university, but there are a number of compelling reasons why less people attending university is a problem. Morally the idea that those with the potential to go to university, but who lack the private financial backing to feel comfortable taking on so much debt, are being excluded from the system is fairly repugnant. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the children of the working class proudly become the first in their families to go to university. Today that trend is being reversed. Make no mistake; those who can no longer afford university are not the sons and daughters of the landed gentry.
Economically the drop in attendance is an issue also. When the grant system for university payment was introduced in 1962, the percentage of the British economy accounted for by work for which no degree was required, manufacturing and 'unskilled' labour, was much higher than today. Banking, research and other 'quaternary' employment, all graduate jobs, are now the basis of the British economy. While graduate jobs may be highly competitive today, if and when the job market starts to rebound the idea of there being fewer graduates to fill them is not encouraging. One can no longer realistically join a bank after leaving school and work up through the ranks. Neither is there an alternative to a degree when trying to enter law or accountancy or journalism. Attempts to increase the prestige of apprenticeships have fallen flat, largely because employers are now used to recruiting graduates, and because the provision of apprenticeships is woefully inadequate. The British economy remains addicted to graduates.
Most of the current situation was forecasted by those who opposed the rise in tuition fees in 2010. It takes no great intellect to realise that when tuition fees are raised by around £5,000 per year (the average tuition fee for the 2012/13 year was between £8,100-8,400) less people will apply to university. The rise in fees has also been accompanied by a fall in the funds available for universities to help students from low income backgrounds. Small wonder then that it is the children of working class families that are suffering as a result, the very people who benefited most from the previous, grant based system. It is perhaps unfair to assume that the intention of those who decided to raise tuition fees was to bar disadvantaged young people from university. However it was clear at the time that they didn't really mind what the consequences of their actions were. In the three years since then, that attitude has not changed.