Are boys the losers with tuition fees?

Conor Ryan considers the lessons from this week’s report by the Independent Commission on Fees.

Students are well into the first year of higher tuition fees. While 54,000 fewer young people started university in 2012 than in 2011, the Government has been congratulating itself that the dip was not much greater.

And the water has been muddied by the changes in student controls that took effect just as the £9000 fee cap was introduced. Moreover, this year’s applications suggest that there is some improvement on last year’s dip.

So is all well in the world of higher fees?

The truth is it is too early to tell. And a new report this week from the Independent Commission on Fees highlights a number of areas where there is some cause for concern.

The first is what’s happening to boys, particularly working class boys. The Commission’s study of UCAS acceptance data has shown not only that the gender gap continues to widen, but that it appears even more pronounced in the lower participation neighbourhoods.

Women are now a third more likely to enter higher education than men and the gender gap seems to have widened as a result of the new fees regime. Among UK residents, 143,600 women aged 19 and under were accepted to English universities in 2012 compared with 118,952 young men.

This represents a decline since 2010 of 2.6% for girls and 4.0% for boys, and a 5.9% decline for girls and a 7.5% decline for boys since 2011.

But in the 40% of English neighbourhoods where university participation is lowest, there were 1700 fewer boys aged 19 and under who were accepted for places in 2012 than in 2011. This represents a decline of 5.4% in the number of young men from these areas going to university this year. By contrast, the fall in the number of young women from these neighbourhoods going to university was smaller, at just 3.7%.

Perhaps of more interest, since it discounts any surge into 2011 to avoid the higher fees, when compared with 2010, the number of young male acceptances fell by 1.4%, while young female acceptances increased by 0.9%. By contrast, between 2009 and 2010, male and female acceptances rose.

In England, while the overall change in the gender gap in the less disadvantaged neighbourhoods was 1.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2012, the overall change in the gender gap in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods was greater, at 2.3 percentage points.

Although the decline in male participation in the most advantaged neighbourhoods was even larger, 20,000 more boys go to university each year from the two top fifth neighbourhoods than from the two bottom fifth neighbourhoods.

It means that the female: male ratio is now nearly 57:43 in the less advantaged neighbourhoods whereas it is closer to 53:47 in the more advantaged neighbourhoods.

With 2013 applications, UCAS has suggested that this gap is persisting. Its January applications report noted that 18 year women remain a third more likely in England to apply to university than men, but this rises to 50 per cent in disadvantaged areas.

If this is the case, it suggests that the information about the new loan repayments may be proving more attractive to young women than to young men, or that young men from disadvantaged areas are less likely to believe that the cost of a degree is worth it. Either way, there is a challenge here for policymakers to meet.

The Commission’s new report has two other important findings that should cause policymakers to take pause. The first is the familiar data on mature students – those aged 20 and over – who had 7.6% fewer acceptances in 2012 than in 2010, more than twice the 3.3% decline for younger students as a whole.

The decision to allow part-timers to have access to student loans hasn’t seen full-timers move to part-time courses either. HEFCE has shown a dramatic drop in part-time numbers, with 105,000 fewer students since 2010, or a 40% drop.

This is important for access, as studying later is an important route to social mobility for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and it is vital that the impact of fees on this group is not neglected just because the reductions among young people are smaller.

As the new President of Birkbeck College, Baroness Bakewell, put it at the weekend:

“Part-time study is crucial for our society. It improves skills and kick-starts new careers – exactly what we need for the economy, employers and individuals during these difficult economic times. In response to the dramatic downturn in part-time students nationwide, unprecedented support is needed now to ensure part-time study thrives in future.”

And the other key finding is perhaps a warning shot at this stage, but one that will need closer scrutiny as the university-level data becomes clear.

While there has been an increase in the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged areas going to the least selective universities, there has been minimal improvement in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust’s list of the 30 more selective universities (which includes the 24 Russell Group members) and a small dip in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust 13 most selective group.

While the only rises to the Sutton Trust 30 were in the lower participation neighbourhoods, the only quintile showing a dip in acceptances to the Sutton Trust 13 was the lowest participation group. This means that there is a widening gap between this group and other more advantaged areas, and those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to attend these universities than those in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

Closer scrutiny of patterns among individual selective universities will be important here. Already, there is some evidence from HESA data that in 2011, the proportion of new undergraduates from state schools and colleges at the 13 top universities slipped for the fourth year in succession.

There is clearly an important issue for the most selective universities and their recruitment from the poorest neighbourhoods – and it is one that the Sutton Trust will return to shortly. The Trust has also commissioned the Institute of Fiscal Studies to examine the potential impact of students leaving university with debts likely to exceed £40,000 on their ability to afford graduate study, buying a house, and having children. Their findings will be published later this year.

So, the truth is that the jury is still out on fees. We need to see whether these findings for 2012 become clearer trends in the next few years. It is vital, meanwhile, that Government, universities and schools do all they can to reach young people with the ability and potential to benefit from university, particularly in areas where university participation is already low.

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