26/07/2013 11:40 BST | Updated 23/09/2013 06:12 BST

Can't See the Wood for the Fees


As we head towards the start of the second year under the coalition's new Higher Education funding regime and with A-Level Results day (and the chaos that is clearing) looming on 15 August, universities, politicians and journalists alike are examining the effect on UCAS applications.

The recent focus has been on the relative rates of application of white students and black and minority ethnic students just as last year it was on applicants of different social classes. I am not here to further pontificate on these issues (as much of what needs to be said has been) but I do want to point out how every one of these debates seems to hugely oversimplify the cause of these changes in behaviour.

Throughout the life of this parliament, and indeed in the election campaign that preceeded it, the policy debate around Higher Education has been dominated by one issue: tuition fees. Student lobbying in the election centred around the now infamous pledge not to raise fees, the planned vote on an HE White Paper in 2010 became a vote mainly on fees and the focus of student activism since the vote has been reversing this policy.

This has lead to the vast majority of discussion around HE student issues always coming back to tuition fees. They are cited as the cause of everything; especially where access is concerned. This is a terrible oversimplification of the root and causes of problems in people accessing higher education.

When I ran to be President of my Students' Union I was convinced that fees were the great foe to be vanquished. Fees of £9,000 were going to discourage people from entering university; putting different prices on degrees would further entrench the class system of "elite" and new universities; fees would be the great barrier to access from low university participation backgrounds. All of these statements have their levels of truth and untruth but while there are those who are put off by the debt, the vast majority of university applicants understand how these loans work.

There are no upfront payments, repayment is based on earnings and the debt cannot be inherited. Do not misunderstand me, these fees are wrong and dangerous but this debt is, to all intents and purposes, good and manageable debt that is not going to cause graduates any great problems (at least under the current terms - I shan't go into the consequences of privatising the loan book here). No, what I have learnt this year is that there is a barrier to higher education which is far greater and more immediate than tuition fees.

In my three years as an undergraduate, we did not spend much if any of our time worrying about the debt we were amassing. What constantly concerned us and provided a constant distraction from our studies was the money we had on which to live. We worried about how much of our loan would cover our rent, we tried to find jobs that helped us afford our travel and books while being sensitive to our timetables, we calculated if a much needed social night to give us respite from studying could be afforded alongside such luxuries as food shopping. Our loan debt was not going to push us to drop out, our overdraft limit was. Student financial support is a, if not the, great barrier to Higher Education.

This is not simply something one realises during student life. Over the past few months, potential applicants will have been sitting and doing the sums to find out if university is a viable option for them. "Which accommodation can I afford? Can my parents subsidise me alongside all their other financial commitments? Will I need to get a job while studying? To what bursaries am I entitled?" Simply, and heartbreakingly, "Can I afford the education I want and need?"

These students have seen their brothers and sisters struggle through university and their parents struggle to support them. They've been told by college and sixth form tutors about how they need to research funding options. And in too many cases they've come to the conclusion that it is not viable. Who knows what potential is being wasted through this simple and solvable barrier?

As a student movement, we must take a lot of responsibility for how this debate has been mischaracterised. For most of the past three years, the dominant argument from the National Union of Students has been all about £9k fees. At the end of the day, "F**k Fees" makes for a better placard. I am pleased, however, that this narrative is changing. At the 2013 NUS conference, we finally dropped our anachronistic demand for free education and adopted a HE funding policy platform which has a far better chance of making it onto the statute books. At the same time we had serious debate about what NUS has come to call "The Pound in Your Pocket".

Pound in Your Pocket is the largest piece of research done on this issue and NUS got over 14,000 valid responses. The results show that 45% of full-time undergraduates feel they have little control of their financial situation and 48% worry about not having enough money to cover basic living expenses. 92% of students in the private rented sector had to pay a security deposit (most commonly between £300-350) and 64% of undergraduates had to pay for resources, book and trips required for their course but not covered by their fees. All of this pressure is having a direct affect on their ability to study and 38% of undergraduates disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "I feel able to concentrate on my studies without worrying about finances".

While 73% do admit to concern over their future debt when asked, only 13% would prefer to receive financial support in the form of a fee waiver. Conversely, 66% want a cash bursary and 4% would choose a discount on university services. When it comes to making a practical choice, the greatest concern is money to live, not debt from studying.

While this is not the only other issue that underlies a decrease in those choosing higher education (for instance, the fact that a degree no longer guarantees you a well paid career) it is one for which we do have research, facts and figures and yet is being consistently under-reported. If we really want to understand how people who would have chosen university 5-10 years ago are no longer doing so we must frame our debate around all of these issues. To keep talking about tuition fees as the be all and end all of student problems is simply intellectually lazy. I am not claiming that every journalist and commenter is falling into this trap but it is happening all too often.

This is why in the next election, while I will certainly be interested to hear the parties' policies on fees, I will be even more concerned about how they intend to improve the provision of financial support for students. How will they defend/reverse the scrapping of the National Scholarship programme? How can they ensure universities are equipped to identify those who need support and provide it? How will they stop our higher education from becoming, once again, the preserve of the privileged elite?


NUS Pound in Your Pocket Survey Results: