Sunday, 5 February 2012

Maintenance not fees explains buoyant full-time HE applications

by Mark Corney

Maintenance support rather than tuition fees explains why applications for full-time places in higher education starting this September have not fallen through the floor.

According to UCAS application rates for 18 year olds in England have only decreased by 5%.* More than 193,000 18 year olds from England have applied for full-time HE places** some 30% of the entire age cohort.

Few in the ‘world of HE’ predicted  the introduction of fees of up to £9,000 per year – the most radical shake-up of tuition funding for a generation – would result in a mere 5% drop in applications from 18 year olds.

Indeed, there is a danger that policy commentators are looking at the wrong aspect of student finance for an explanation of why demand is so buoyant.


18 year olds are not daft. They know if they get a place at university this September they have an automatic entitlement to maintenance loans and grants for the next three years. Maintenance for studying full-time will shelter them from having to a get a job in what is fast becoming a truly dreadful youth labour market.


The number of 18-24 year olds who have only a job compared to those combining full-time education and a job is dropping like a stone. And so, the choice for 18 year olds this September is between education maintenance or the dole; maintenance loans and possibly grants or Jobseekers Allowance; life as a full-time student or attendance at the local job centre; supplementing full-time study with a part-time job during term time and vacations if possible, or trying to find a job with an apprenticeship or more likely being directed onto subsidised jobs, work placements or the Work Programme for their dole.
 

The minimum a full-time student in higher education is entitled to irrespective of family income from September will be about £2,843 in the form of a maintenance loan. Stay on JSA for a year and 18-24 year olds will receive almost the same in maintenance, £2,925 per year, albeit as a grant.

And, of course, maintenance support for full-time HE students is significantly higher for those students from poorer families and living away from home. Maintenance loans and grants can total up to £7,000.

True, there has been a sharp decline in applications from 19 year olds by nearly 13%, a worrying sign given this is the second largest cohort of entrants into full-time HE. A double digit drop has also been recorded for 20 year olds, the next highest age cohort who actually get a place in full-time HE. But although significant  falls in applications have occurred amongst 22-24 year olds it should be remember that historically much smaller numbers enter full-time HE from these age groups.

For 19 and 20 year olds in particular who did not get a place aged 18 when fees were £3,000 per year, fees of £9,000 - albeit funded by loans- will certainly have been a deterrent.  Yet, going forward the key issue is whether 18 year olds who were unlucky not to secure a place this September will apply when they are 19 in 2013 with fee loans of £9,000 and jobs in even shorter supply.

Maintenance can also partly explain the drop in applications for full-time HE places from mature students aged over 24. Many already live away from the parental home: some will have partners and families. Their financial needs are greater than young people with no ties or responsibilities. Pressure on household income and fears about the jobs of their partners make full-time HE too risky.

Nevertheless, the reality is that applications have far exceeded the number of full-time places. And the bitter irony is that the Coalition is finding it easier to ‘treble fees funded by loans’ with no dramatic effect on demand in a recession when jobs are few and far between. Moreover during a boom young people in particular could combine good jobs with part-time HE.

The impact of the rise in tuition fees will be assessed by an independent commission led by Will Hutton, opinion former and principal of Hertford College Oxford. It will rightly assess whether the new fee regime will deter young people from low and middle income backgrounds to enter full-time HE. And it will no doubt come under pressure to look at the impact on full-time mature students as well as part-time HE students who will also face having to take out fee loans for the first time.

But it would be a mistake for the commission to focus exclusively on fees. Maintenance is important too.


Mark Corney is policy adviser to the Campaign for Learning


*Analysis of UCAS January deadline application rates by country, UCAS, January 2012

**Data reported for applications considered on time for 15th January deadline, UCAS, January 2012

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