The danger of fee cuts for social mobility

Joint Statement by the Russell Group and social mobility charities on the dangers of a university funding cut

The Government’s review of post-18 education and funding is expected to report shortly. It has been widely speculated that the advisory panel led by Philip Augar could recommend sweeping changes, including a cut to tuition fees. If the Government does not replace the lost income, funding for higher education will be significantly reduced.

We are concerned that the progressive elements of the current student finance system will be chipped away and the proposed reforms could make disadvantaged students worse off. While there is still work to do in ensuring young people from all walks of life have equal access to a university education, recent years have seen important progress with a record proportion of young people now entering higher education, including a record proportion from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Universities, often working in partnership with third sector organisations, are driving innovative and effective schemes to make UK campuses more inclusive and diverse.  We call on Ministers to help ensure recent social mobility gains are not sent into reverse.

It may sound counterintuitive to suggest that lower tuition fees could harm social mobility, but the reasons are threefold:

  • If tuition fees are reduced and Government does not make up the shortfall, universities will have significantly less funding and will in turn have to reduce student places. This would amount to a de facto cap on student numbers. When student places are restricted, disadvantaged students suffer most. 

  • We could face a sharp drop in the money available for vital schemes which encourage underrepresented students to start a degree and support them through their studies.

  • A fee cut primarily benefits graduates who earn more, who will end up contributing less to the cost of their education than they do now.

Since higher fees were introduced and student number controls started to be removed, numbers of the most disadvantaged students going to university have increased by almost a third. It is therefore welcome that the Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, recently confirmed he is “proud to be a member of the Conservative Party that…removed the cap on student numbers”. But while no government is likely to restrict the number of people able to enter higher education directly, reductions in the number of places will be inevitable if fees are cut and the overall money available to universities is reduced. Ministers should go further and explicitly rule out a de facto cap on student numbers. 

On average, across the country, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely than their classmates to go to university and do not benefit from the same networks and support when they do. This year, Russell Group universities will direct £265m into programmes to address these gaps, working with charities, schools and communities in every region and nation of the UK. As a whole, the sector will invest £900m. We want this money to be used as effectively as possible and to build up strong evidence to show which interventions works best. But a fee cut to £7,500, for instance, would wipe out much of this spending. If the Treasury cuts fees it should provide an enduring guarantee that the lost income will be made up in full, with meaningful assurances it will rise with demand.

Finally, evidence indicates that any deterrent effect of higher fees is outweighed by progressive arrangements for loan repayments. Young people have not been put off from entering higher education in increasing numbers, including those from worse off homes. At present, no fees are paid up front; students only ever repay in line with their earnings; and any outstanding balance is written off after thirty years. The focus should be on providing disadvantaged students with the academic and admissions support they need to get in to university and adequate maintenance when they are there. To help, maintenance grants should be reintroduced for the students who need them most.

In summary:

  • Russell Group universities and a coalition of third sector social mobility organisations are calling on Ministers to ensure the Government’s review of Post-18 education and funding does not damage efforts to make UK campuses more inclusive and diverse.

  • We urge Ministers to explicitly rule out any de facto cap on student numbers, which would hurt poorer students most.

  • If the Treasury cuts tuition fees it should give an enduring guarantee that the lost income will be made up in full and will rise with demand.

  • To help with the cost of living, maintenance grants should be reintroduced for students who need them most.  

Dr Tim Bradshaw, CEO, Russell Group

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus

Johnny Rich, CEO, Push

Nathan Sansom, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Rae Tooth, CEO, Villiers Park

Statement from social mobility charity CEOs in response to proposals for changes to Higher Education funding

“Britain’s deep social mobility problem, for this generation of young people in particular, is getting worse not better.”Social Mobility Commission State of the Nation Report 2017.

Higher Education (HE) should be a route open to all young people, irrespective of background. But we have a big and persistent social mobility problem in the UK: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are half as likely to progress to HE as their peers.

Widening Participation funding exists to help close this gap. This funding is vital to the work that we – alongside universities, the Office for Students and others – do to support young people from under-represented groups to progress to, and succeed in, HE. This funding is now in question.

Our request to government

  • Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on momentum around spending it effectively

  • We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE

  • We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone

  • We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers

Rationale: We are concerned by reports that the government’s review of post-18 education funding is considering measures which could have a detrimental effect on social mobility.


The current student loan system is progressive as no fees are paid up front and loans are paid back contingent to income. Cutting fees to £6,500 would benefit higher earning graduates the most, as they would pay back less of the cost of their education than they do now. Addressing the cost of living, for example by restoring maintenance grants, would be a better way to encourage more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to access HE.

Unless protected, a cut in fees to £6,500 could eliminate almost all the widening participation funding designed to close the access gap. This is because universities are currently required to spend a proportion of the fee income they receive if they charge fees above that amount on widening participation activities. Universities have already indicated that if fees are cut, they are unlikely to be able to fund their widening participation programmes. Clear arrangements for funding widening participation activity will be needed to replace this lost fee income.

In his speech on social mobility earlier this year, Secretary of State for Education Damian Hinds reminded us that “universities expect to spend £860 million to improve access and success for disadvantaged students, this is a lot of money and it needs to be spent well.”

We agree. The fact that millions are earmarked for poorer communities and students for whom university has not historically been an option is a seldom talked about good news story for the government. This money is being spent increasingly effectively, with better evaluation, an improved regulatory framework and the forthcoming evidence and impact exchange all adding to our ability to put these funds to good use.

As charities involved in access, we rigorously measure our impact and we know that our programmes are getting thousands of young people into and through HE who would not otherwise have had this opportunity. Now is not the time for government to turn its back on the funding we need to do this.

Irrespective of what fee regime the review opts for, we call on the government to protect widening participation funding, while building on the momentum around spending it effectively.

Differential fees would add another level of complexity to student choices in a HE landscape that is already complicated. Students from poorer backgrounds are less likely to receive the advice and guidance they need to make good choices about their course, and we believe there is a real risk that students from disadvantaged backgrounds could choose courses based purely on price, as opposed to the value they might deliver for them.

We urge the government to avoid adding complexity to the higher education funding landscape and to ensure that all students have the information, advice and guidance they need to make good choices in HE.

The affordability of university is a significant concern for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The current level of maintenance support is not sufficient to cover students’ living costs and contributions from parents to make up this gap are seldom an option for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We urge the government to increase the amount of maintenance support available to young people, for instance by restoring maintenance grants, so that university is affordable for everyone.

A cap on the number of people going to university is a regressive measure which would hit disadvantaged students the hardest. These young people are less likely to apply, less likely to get in and less likely to graduate. A cap would also be bad for business and risks hampering our global competitiveness. The global trend is for countries to send more young people to university, not fewer.

We urge the government not to impose a cap on student numbers.

Andrew Berwick, CEO, The Access Project

Anand Shukla, CEO, Brightside

Julie Randles, CEO, Causeway Education

Andy Ratcliffe, CEO, Impetus-PEF

Rachel Carr, CEO, IntoUniversity

John Craven, CEO, upReach

Our response to the Government's review of post-18 education

We recently contributed to the Government's major review of funding for post-18 education in England, which aims to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. Our submission focused on three key themes:

1. Making sure that Higher Education is “accessible for all”.

We welcome the prominence the review gives to disadvantaged students.

If the new funding system is indeed to be “accessible for all” then care should be taken to ensure that any changes in the funding regime do not deter students from under-represented groups from participating in Higher Education.

While the overall Higher Education Participation Rate increased to 49% in 2015-16 there remain troubling gaps in the ability of disadvantaged and part-time students to access Higher Education.  Whatever the details of the new funding system, access for disadvantaged students needs to remain the top priority.

2. Putting schools and colleges at the heart of post-18 progression

The drivers of fair access – good attainment and effective guidance – are to be found in the classroom, but schools and colleges are largely overlooked in debates about post-18 progression.

To ensure that students can make informed post-18 choices, we need to shift the centre of gravity towards schools and colleges.

Schools and colleges face significant pressures on their existing resources. In order to enable schools and colleges to improve their post-18 destinations, we advocate setting up a Student Outcomes Fund with ringfenced funds made available to improve systems in schools and colleges. 

3. Strengthening Information, Advice and Guidance in the classroom

Most adults struggle to choose between five energy suppliers, but we expect students to be able to make rational choices between 37,000 UCAS courses.

If we want applicants to make appropriate choices about what and where to study then we need to offer better support. Providing more information is not the solution. Information overload has now reached a stage that experts have argued that students are being encouraged to make irrational decisions based on crude heuristics.

Research shows that students respond more effectively to “hot information” provided by trusted sources, such as teachers, as opposed to “cold information” provided in literature and on websites. Part of a Student Outcomes Fund should therefore be directed towards supporting teachers and other key influencers to make provide effective and personalised guidance for students.

The independent panel, chaired by Philip Augar and supported by experts from across the sector, are currently reviewing evidence. We look forward to seeing how the review progresses.