By Jonathan Isaby
One of the fears expressed by the six Tory rebels who voted against the Government on tuition fees last night (full breakdown of who rebelled is here) was that the increase would deter people from poorer backgrounds fro going to university.
It became an issue over which Conservative MPs argued during the debate in the chamber yesterday.
"I speak from my own experiences as a former schoolteacher, which I have mentioned on many occasions, and as the first person in my family to attend university-I know that I am not unique in that among hon. Members. I went to university on a full grant with all my tuition paid, shortly before tuition fees were introduced. I can only think about the impact that the proposed fees would have had on me and my family when I was growing up. Would my parents have encouraged me to attend university, had they thought I would come away with debts of £40,000 or £50,000? I do not think so. Similarly, many of the students whom I taught in deprived schools in Hull wanted to go to university, but when I encouraged them to do so, the response was often, "My dad says that we can't afford to go to university." That was after fees were introduced.
"Since fees were introduced, the evidence has shown that although there has been widening participation, students from some backgrounds are not attending the best universities, as I said to the shadow Secretary of State. They choose where to attend based on money and finances, rather than on what is best for them. They often choose to stay at home."
In reference to similar arguments made by Labour MP Barry Sheerman, Surrey East MP Sam Gyimah responded:
"He reminded the House of the debate on tuition fees here in 2004. That Bill passed by five votes. However, he did not say that, during that debate, we heard the same apocalyptic messages that we are hearing in the Chamber today. The issue then was fees increasing from £1,000 to £3,000. No Government Member says with relish that we should increase fees, but it is important to note that six years on from those debates, 45% of people go to university and 200,000 people want to but cannot go. The hon. Gentleman should therefore have told us that, although we were worried at the time, many of those worries proved unfounded."
This argument was developed with more statistics by Grantham and Stamford's Nick Boles:
"Many Members believe fervently that the fees proposed by the Government will deter people whose parents did not go to university and who come from families on low incomes from going to university. It is also true, as we heard earlier, that some opinion polls suggest that a very large proportion of people say that they will be deterred from going to university. Yet people do not always do what they say they are going to do."
"Unfortunately, there is not much research out there that goes into the question of the kinds of people who go to university, but fortunately I have found one such piece of research conducted by a group called Higher Education Strategy Associates. It carried out a truly systematic comparison of what it calls educational equality and it discovered, extraordinarily and against our expectations, that high fees do not deter people from low-income families from going to university."
"In Germany, 63% of students have fathers who also went to university. That means that only 37% of the students in Germany are the first in their family to go to university-the figure in the UK is 51%. Only 29% of students in Australia have fathers who went to university. The figure is only 31% in Canada and 39% in the United States.
"The countries in which universities make the biggest contribution to social mobility are therefore those with the highest fees. How can that be? I agree that it is counter-intuitive. I will not deny to Opposition Members that that is not how one would expect people to behave. However, it is explainable.
"First, such universities have an incentive to expand the number of places, because they receive additional money for each place-enough money to pay for the costs of that place. They therefore massively expand the number of places. That makes it easier for people who have not had huge advantages in life, who have not been able to go to the best schools and who do not have the highest grades, but who are nevertheless huge potential reservoirs of talent, to get places."
"The second explanation is that universities that earn a substantial income from fees are able to devote more resources to active steps to woo students from poorer families. They need a lot of wooing because they are frightened about what will happen. Such universities not only invest in wooing students from poorer families, but support them with bursaries and scholarship grants. The university with the best record in the world in participation from low-income families is Harvard university, which charges tuition fees of $32,000 a year. It can do that because it offers scholarships and bursaries to ensure that people are not put off. It goes out into schools and actively recruits people from low-income families."
"I was particularly struck by the elegant process of ratiocination by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). He was able to make a convincing case that the more we charge people to go to university, the more people will go and the more poorer people will go. In that case, I am tempted to vote against the Government on the grounds that they are not charging enough. Perhaps we should charge quadruple fees, quintuple fees or even sextuple fees, to ensure that the entire population of the country can go to university.
"I am worried about the prospects for my party. I remember an earlier time when we thought we had a good policy. In fact, I worked with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and one of his most effective speech writers – a very good young man called Peter Campbell – on trying to sell the poll tax to the people. There were all sorts of elegant arguments to show that the poll tax was actually the best and the fairest policy. Well, even if we have a policy that we genuinely think is fair, unless we can convince people that it truly is a fair policy, it will fail and be rejected. I can hear people talk about percentages until they are blue in the face – or yellow in the face – but they will not convince me that young people from poor backgrounds will not be deterred. If they would not be deterred, why was it necessary to introduce the special measures for those who have free school meals? I would have been deterred, and I do not want others to be deterred."
During his summing up of the debate, Universities MInister David Willetts also tackled this point:
"When we were in opposition, my party voted against the fee increases in 2004, and we remember that decision because we were afraid that the effect of fees would be to put poor people off applying to university. We have now seen the evidence, however, and it shows that, since fees came in-and because there were loans as well-the proportion of people going to university from the poorest backgrounds in England has actually gone up. It has not gone down. Indeed, by contrast, in Scotland, the proportion of people from the poorest backgrounds attending university has fallen while it has gone up in England. That is why my party has concluded that fees supported by loans do not deter poor students from going to university."