Time to tackle teenagers’ fears of fees

Sir Peter Lampl says that a new Sutton Trust/Ipsos Mori poll highlights cost concerns among the next generation of university students.

Earlier this year, the Government breathed an audible sigh of relief as university applications appeared to rise again after falling off in the first year of higher fees, although they are still not at 2010 levels.

But a new Ipsos Mori poll for the Sutton Trust suggests that ministers may have been a little premature in taking too much comfort from the latest UCAS data. The poll shows that two thirds of school children worry about the cost of going to university. Only 7 per cent of the 2600 11-16 year-olds polled said they had no concern about the cost.

At the same time, aspirations remain as high as ever. More than four in five young people say they are likely to go to university, even though in reality the proportion of 18-30 year-olds who do so is still less than half. 38% of young people say they are very likely to go to university when they are older, and 43% say they are fairly likely to do so. This is the same proportion as last year when the same question was asked.

Two thirds – 65% – of all the young people polled had significant concerns about university finance which break down as follows:  28% were concerned about tuition fees; 19% were concerned about student living costs and 18% were concerned about lack of earnings while studying.

And although 67% of young people said the most important consideration when deciding whether or not to go to university would be their exam grades, 17% said it would be the cost of going to university, with students from the least affluent families (23%) more likely to cite cost as the biggest consideration than those from the most affluent families (14%).

So, despite high aspirations – and a realistic sense of what they might need to do to realise them – nobody can argue that most young people aren’t still worried about the cost of higher education.

It’s hardly surprising that they are worried when graduates face debts of over £40,000 with fees of £9000 a year for most courses. The truth is that young people are caught between a rock and a hard place.

They know that they still need a university education to get on in life and get a good job. For all the talk of falling graduate premiums, a degree – especially one from a good university – still brings a substantial income bonus. And as Sutton Trust research showed earlier this year, a postgraduate degree is increasingly important, and brings with it an additional substantial premium.

And even if graduates may be finding it harder to gain an immediate job after university, their long term prospects remain brighter than for non-graduates.

But the canny teenager knows something else too. He or she knows that a degree comes with a much higher price tag than ever. Where this year’s graduates might be paying off their student loans into their thirties, those graduating from 2015 onwards will be paying back right into their fifties.

There may be some lower up-front costs, but a £40,000-plus debt with interest rates of up to 3% over inflation a year means that those repayments could impact on whether or when to buy a house or have a family. We’ve asked the Institute for Fiscal Studies to look into the implications of these debt repayments and to model the likely impact on important life decisions. They will report later this year.

But I think there is something else the Government could do now to ease the burden on low and middle income graduates in the future. They should means-test the tuition fee – as happened from 1998-2006 when fees were first levied on undergraduates – in the same way that the maintenance grant is already means-tested. As I noted in an earlier post, this is already commonplace in the United States.

Given that the Government already expects to write off a third of its loans – and some observers think they will have to write off much more – this need not be a particularly costly option. But it could start to allay the fears of debt that face all too many of those who should become tomorrow’s students. That would be a real investment in the future.

A divided nation losing its American dream?

Lee Elliot Major on how political grid-lock is harming education in the US

Manhattan’s frenetic streets in New York have always been a thrilling, nerve jangling experience for visiting Brits. Perhaps I’m just getting less relaxed in my middle age, but last week during a Sutton Trust visit, I noticed that the traffic has become all but grid-locked on the famous mesh of streets and avenues that define the city. All road etiquette seems to have been abandoned, as the yellow taxis and black limos fight for every inch of space, with little respect for people crossing the road. I opted for the much easier mode of transport: travelling by foot.

This image stayed with me as I flew back to London – as it symbolised so perfectly America’s current troubles. As someone who had admired greatly the United States for its aspirational spirit, ‘can do’ culture and work ethic, I came away feeling like I’d left a deeply divided and dysfunctional country. I worry that this will damage the nation’s education prospects. And render the American dream a relic of a once golden past.

The problem is that Senators and Congressmen are aping the worst tactical games of our Members of Parliament in the UK. Personal or local considerations are being sacrificed for the greater interests of the political party as a whole. That sort of works in Westminster, where the ruling party enjoys a majority of votes in Parliament; but not in Washington. In contrast to the UK, the executive and legislature are separated in the US: even if President Obama wants to pass a Bill he doesn’t have the loyal foot-soldiers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to make it happen. And to make matters worse, the very concept of federal Government action is anathema to some Republicans.

Education is the helpless victim of this political impasse. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who oversees billions of dollars in federal education budgets, is all but powerless to enact some of the programmes he envisioned for his second term. One flagship policy was to fund pre-school education for all four year olds from low income homes – to narrow the stark education gaps that already exist when children start school. Instead he has had to oversee cuts to education spending as part of the recent compromise budget agreed by Republicans and Democrats.  Education, unlike a bad economy or a military action overseas, is by its nature a long term issue, unlikely to get the immediate political spotlight. It was conspicuous for its absence from the Presidential election debates last year.

From a London-centric UK, it has always been refreshing to experience the fierce independence of the different States in the US (which allocate around 90% of education funds).  But across the country bitter battles are being fought over education at state level as well.

On one side are reformers wanting to introduce more competition between schools, common test scores and teacher evaluations that distinguish genuinely between good and poor performers. On the other are the skeptics, backed by the powerful teacher unions, who argue that the focus on competition and test scores will hinder not help teaching and learning in the classroom.

The uncomfortable truth for the US is that progress is only likely if these two polarised camps can find some common ground. Nations that have performed well educationally on the global stage have one stand-out feature: a partnership between Government reformers and teacher leaders working together for the greater good.

The real victims in all this are of course America’s children. The most shocking divide is that between the education haves and have-nots – in this nation once the global beacon of social mobility. Just to quote one of many depressing statistics: seventy-five percent of students at the most selective colleges and universities in the US are from the top quarter of the income distribution; while only 3 percent are from the bottom quartile. The US is slowly but surely losing the global education talent race.

An educationalist respected on both sides of the Pond, Sir Michael Barber, recently posted a thought on twitter after visiting Silicon Valley: “Incredible entrepreneurship + the Common Core = US at forefront of global education reform. May be?”

I really hope his slightly guarded optimism is proved right. The impact of establishing common standards across States should not be underestimated. But right now I can only remember the cars jammed against each other amidst the fumes, stuck in New York’s streets, all sense of common purpose seemingly lost.

 

What a university summer school did for me…

Anne-Marie Canning, the Head of the Widening Participation department at King’s College London, was one of those students who won a place on a life-changing university summer school. Here’s her story.

“I owe a lot to the old, creaky fax machine in Doncaster that whizzed off my Sutton Trust Summer School application in the nick of time about ten years ago. I was in the common room late on a Friday afternoon when my teacher pushed a form in front of me with the words, ‘I’ve just found this summer school thing and I think you should apply. We’ve got half an hour, so hurry!’ I didn’t have much time to think about which course to apply for so ticked the thing I liked doing most at that point in time: reading books, English Literature.

My mum was over the moon when a letter came through the post telling me I’d won a place, and I promptly set about reading all the books by authors I’d never heard of, like James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. They were not easy books to read but it made me realise that the summer school meant business and would be intellectually challenging.

Fast-forward to August and there I was in the glorious summer sunshine at the gates of the University. I felt a kick of homesickness in my stomach but steadied my nerves and went to the sign in desk, where I met by a group of friendly undergraduate students. They showed me to my room and told me what I could expect from the week ahead.

The summer school involved all sorts of exciting things I’d never had the chance to do before, like watch a Shakespeare play, debate my ideas, listen to a lecture, have a tutorial and experience the freedom of an entire library. And as well as learning a lot about my chosen subject I also learnt a lot about myself during that week.

I learnt that there were lots of like-minded people out there, and that they were just as clever (if not more clever!) than me. I also learnt that my northern accent was much, much stronger than I ever imagined it to be! I made some good friends, too, and we all ended the week with a swanky dinner. I went home happy and determined to work hard and get good AS-level grades.

That Autumn I applied to lots of highly selective universities and made sure I talked about my summer school experience in my personal statement. The Autumn after I joined the University of York as a student of English and Related Literatures, and ten years later I am now the head of the team that will be running the Sutton Trust Summer School at King’s College London.

This blog post first appeared on the King’s College website

 

No legislation no bad thing

Conor Ryan suggests that the absence of education legislation in the Queen’s Speech may be a blessing for education reform

When I was a special adviser at the Department for Education in the late 1990s, it was seen as a measure of a Department’s success the extent to which it achieved legislation in the Queen’s Speech. This essentially macho test often led to more legislation than was strictly necessary to achieve policy goals.

Many people forget that although the Labour government needed legislation to restrict most infant class sizes to 30, it needed no legislation to introduce the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. The latter were the result of a mix of persuasion and accountability, and were arguably more effective as a result.

And legislation was too often used as a way to trumpet changes that could have been introduced less dramatically. Trust schools – the centrepiece of Tony Blair’s 2005 education reforms – were a good example. As with Michael Gove’s first academies legislation, the essential architecture was already in place, and what changes were needed could have been introduced with less fanfare through regulations.

So, it is no bad thing that there was no education legislation in this year’s Queen’s Speech. Of course, that didn’t stop the Government using the occasion from getting Her Majesty to remind Parliament of changes already in train, such as the curriculum overhaul or performance pay for teachers.

But nobody would argue that Michael Gove is any less powerful because he hasn’t got a fifty or a hundred clause bill to take through Parliament over the next twelve months. And I doubt any of his junior ministers – who would be tasked with the legwork – is overly concerned either.

However, what it does mean is that it is all the more important that changes the Government is introducing get the scrutiny they deserve, and that they are subjected to the sort of rigorous evaluation – usually through randomised control trials – that the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation are using.

That is important not just for ministers who want to ensure that their reforms are making a difference to results, particularly for the poorest pupils, but also if they are to gain buy-in from teachers and headteachers.

With more than half of all secondary schools now having academy status, as well as a growing number of free schools and university technical colleges, schools are getting used to having more freedoms than before. And while complex legislation can be important on some issues – such as ensuring a fair admissions code – it is a blunt instrument over issues such as the curriculum or performance related pay.

Over-complexity militates against successful reform. When Estelle Morris first introduced performance pay in 2000, the intervention of the teaching unions ensured the whole process was wrapped in endless bureaucracy.

Leave aside for a moment the perfectly valid issue of the impact of PRP on attainment – though Gerard Kelly’s recent TES piece show why in this case there are other issues to consider – the real problem is that legal issues come to outweigh the flexibility that allows heads to reward good teachers in a straightforward way.  A less complex system may prove to be more effective in overcoming the culture against PRP in some schools. And we might then have some serious research on the issue too.

But those increasingly independent state schools will equally need to be persuaded on the curriculum – including on the detail now planned in subjects like history – and on other issues where ministers feel strongly. As they do so, it is important that they use evidence rather than past practice or even DFE guidance to make their decisions.

That’s why the increasing popularity of the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit is so important. Next week, we plan to publish new evidence of just how popular it is becoming. But in the meantime, we should reflect that giving Michael Gove and schools a break from the 2014 Education Act is not only no bad thing, it may allow the breathing space needed for genuine reform to take place.

Our new board will help us achieve our future goals

Peter Lampl celebrates the establishment of a new Sutton Trust advisory and development board.

The new Sutton Trust board has met for the first time. The Board currently has 18 members drawn from the worlds of business, education and philanthropy, and each is wholly committed to help us in our goal of improving social mobility through education.

By joining the board, they will help make a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and have a real impact on social mobility, an area of public policy that is now at the heart of national debate.

Over the last 16 years, the Trust has helped change the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people through its successful programmes. As the UK’s leading organisation improving social mobility through education, we want to improve the educational opportunities for many more young people, expanding our work nationally and internationally and increasing our policy impact through ground-breaking research.

The new advisory and development board will ensure that we can build on that success. The board model we have adopted is inspired by practice in the United States. As with its programmes and research, the Sutton Trust draws on international inspiration where we believe it can make a real difference.

As a charity, fundraising is an important part of ensuring that we are able to continue to make a difference to the lifechances of the many young people with whom we work each year.

That US model means that each member of the board, as well as contributing their precious time and invaluable ideas, is making a generous financial contribution to our ongoing research and programmes, either individually or through their foundations.

When I established the Sutton Trust 16 years ago, I knew we could make a difference, but I maybe hadn’t realised the full impact that we might have. Now, social mobility is at the heart of the agenda of all three main political parties, and a major part of the national discourse. Our summer schools and other programmes are the leading forces for social mobility in universities and key professions. Our research makes news and influences policymakers.

But there is much more we could and can do in the future.  We see real scope for further development of our summer schools. In the UK, with universities now having to contribute significantly more to access, there is a unique opportunity to create a co-ordinated access programme that ensures a clear focus on the most effective programmes.

In the US, we want to build on the incredible success of our summer school last year. We’ve already got 150 young people ready to go to Yale and MIT this year, finding out about the great opportunities that leading US universities provide to bright international students from low and middle income families to study cost-free.

We want to expand our work in primary schools, helping build aspirations at a time when doing so can be most effective, and do more in the early years to create solid foundations for children. We also want to do more to improve the quality of teaching in schools, recognising that raising the game of the 440,000 teachers already in our classrooms is the most important way to improve the education our children receive.

We’re keen to do more to enable highly able young people in comprehensive schools to fulfil their potential, and we think the Pathways model, which allies university access work with professional skills and experience, has great scope for expansion too, from our current work in Law and real estate into many more influential careers.

To achieve all this, it is vital that the Trust continues beyond me and my money. For that to happen we need significant annual fundraising and income from an endowment I want to create for the future.

I am delighted that so many distinguished individuals have already agreed to join the Sutton Trust board, committing both their time and resources. I’m very grateful to them for helping us achieve our future goals.