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Tuition fee rises mean children are less likely to aspire to go to university

By Nuffield Foundation

The rise in university tuition fees in 2010 had an impact on whether children aged 10 to 15 in England aspired to study for A-levels or attend university, according to a new report from Royal Holloway, funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

The report examines data from a large-scale social survey which took place over a period of seven years (2009-16) and covered the whole of the UK. In the survey children aged 10 to 15 were asked about their attitudes towards studying for A-levels and attending university.

As the tuition fee increase – announced in the autumn of 2010 – affected mostly students from England, the study looks at the change in aspirations among English children from before the policy announcements to after and compares it to the corresponding change in aspirations in other parts of the UK.

The research team led by Professor Dan Anderberg from the Department of Economics at Royal Holloway, found that the university tuition fee reform led to children in England reducing their aspirations for post-compulsory education relative to children in the rest of the UK. Specifically they found:

  • A 4.5 percentage point decrease in aspirations to stay in school after age 16 and do A-levels (compared to an average aspiration rate of 82%)
  • A 1.9 percentage point decrease in aspirations to go to university (compared to an average aspiration rate of 80%)

Before the tuition fee reform female students were more likely to aspire to go to university (85%) than male students (74%). Following the tuition reform this gender aspirations gap increased, with a stronger negative effects for males – young male students became 4 percentage points less likely to say they aspired to university, while we see a smaller reduction of 1 percentage point for female students.

Similarly, the negative effects of the reform were found to be stronger for children from families of lower socioeconomic status (as measured by mother’s education), indicating that the reform increased the socioeconomic gaps in educational aspirations.

Recent research which focused on student behaviour, has found increases in tuition fees had no clear negative impact on enrolment figures. However, these studies did not account other factors which might impact enrolment levels, such as university admissions policies. By focusing on aspirations and intentions, this study provides a more direct approach to isolating the impact of increased tuition fees on demand.

The report also examines expectations about post-graduation earnings among students who go to university and the role of international diversity on higher education choices and performance.

Professor Dan Anderberg from Royal Holloway, said:

“There has been surprisingly little research on the aspiration towards higher education of children in secondary school. Our work has shown that young people’s aspirations towards higher education are sensitive to the future tuition fees they may face.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said:

“In light of the Augar Review, this new research shows the relationship between higher education funding arrangements and young people’s choices is more complex than previously thought.

“Whilst the existing evidence-base suggests tuition fee reforms have not put students from disadvantaged backgrounds off going to university, this research finds the reforms have had a negative impact on aspirations for younger age groups.

“This suggests that widening participation activities and information campaigns might be more effective than we had realised in offsetting teenagers’ concerns about the personal costs of studying for a degree. This report contributes to the body of work the Nuffield Foundation has funded on the relationship between socio-economic background and educational participation and achievement.”

By Nuffield Foundation

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.