Will ending grants end access to HE?

This week, I have asked my London Higher colleague, Dr Graeme Atherton to write a piece in his capacity as Head of Access HE. Thanks Graeme!

The natural assumption is that the main effect of reducing maintenance grants will be to discourage the participation of learners from lower socio-economic groups in HE. However, in the short run this is less likely to occur, at least for younger students. But this does not mean in the longer run we will not see negative effects on access to HE. The most important of these effects may be though on how young people participate in HE and it is through this route that participation itself may drop.

Firstly though, let’s look at participation in the short (or even medium) run. The majority of younger students who are perceived by themselves (and their teachers/parents) as even broadly academically able will be on pathways that lead to HE already and unlikely to deviate from them. The alternatives are simply not strong enough. For all the desire of government and other organisations in the voluntary sector to champion apprenticeships the majority of such opportunities are hugely inferior to what HE offers, and the majority of graduate level careers still do not offer comparable ‘non-graduate routes’.This is especially the case for young women. Like it or not, the reality is that the perceptions of labour market opportunity remain heavily gendered as does subject choice at school. The ‘gold riband’ apprentices such as those at Rolls Royce or British Aerospace are favoured by young men. For young women the effective choice is less prestigious in administration, health and social care or hairdressing. There is also a determination amongst many young people to go onto HE despite the financial barriers being placed in front of them. The evidence suggests that young people from lower socio economic groups are not less determined, once they are pathways that lead to HE. Research undertaken by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) earlier this year with over 1500 young people in year 13 about to go to HE found over 75% wanted to go to higher education because they valued the experience of being a student. There appears to be an intrinsic value still placed upon HE by students, separate from the extrinsic value associated with improved labour market opportunities.

Things may change into the longer run though. The elasticity of demand for HE amongst young people may not be completely insensitive to price, if the perception of the value of HE changes. As the first cohorts of post 2012 reforms students graduate in the late 2010s their fortunes will come under heavy scrutiny. Are they getting jobs? Is the debt they carry stopping them renting, buying property or borrowing further money?

However it may not be just what happens after graduation as a result of the increasingly expensive system that affects participation. The NEON study described above found that young people from lower socio-economic groups were more likely to study nearer home, live at home, work during term time and select courses on the basis of cost when there are others they would rather do if HE was cheaper. The belief in the intrinsic merit of the student experience as well as the extrinsic value of HE form the twin pillars of the inelasticity of demand for HE. If the higher levels of debt start to distort that experience by pushing students to do HE in sub-optimal ways then we may see subsequent declines in participation as the intrinsic value of HE is diminished.

It is unlikely, even in the medium term, that the alternatives to HE will drastically improve on their own, particularly for young women. But cost may force young people to reluctantly re-asses their options. If better qualified young people start to move into apprenticeships then by virtue of this move, the apprenticeship experience will improve and they will become more attractive to employers. It has long been a problem to employers engaged in apprenticeships that they end up with the less qualified, able young people. They really want those who are planning to go to HE. If they start to get them it is this, more than government exhortations, which will encourage them to improve the apprenticeship offer. If this happens then HEIs may have a real problem.

HE participation is not best understood in a linear way. It is more akin to an ecosystem – where inter dependency and an intricate system of vertical, horizontal and diagonal relationships pertain. Removing grants disrupts that ecosystem.  Over time it could disrupt it to such a degree that much of access to HE we have fought so hard to create is placed in jeopardy.