Sutton Trust survey of school pupils on university

21 June 2010

Commenting on the Sutton Trust’s report on the views of secondary school pupils towards university, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said:

“Evidence from the UK and abroad shows that fees simply do not harm access, as long as several key features are included in any student support and contribution system. Applicants must have access to clear and transparent information about the education they will receive – including potential career prospects and the availability of financial support – if they are to make informed choices about their investment in higher education.

“This report highlights a worrying lack of understanding about how different courses and universities have differing impacts on students’ career prospects. Information, advice and guidance for university applicants must be improved. 

“Contributions to the cost of university should also take into account a graduate’s ability to pay. The current system includes a lot of protections for low-earners, and arguably too much support for those who are less in need. In this system, no fees are paid up-front, graduates do not pay anything back until they earn £15,000, and even then they only repay a small proportion of their income over and above £15,000 at a real rate of interest equivalent to zero. Russell Group universities also award relatively large bursaries to students in need in addition to this support from the state. Therefore it is unhelpful and misleading to discuss fee levels without discussing the student support and advice and guidance arrangements which accompany them. 

“Unsurprisingly, some survey respondents expressed concern about having to pay higher fees – indeed, most people do not welcome paying more tax – and it is important to listen to their views. However, evidence suggests that once students are informed about the fee system and support available – and particularly if they achieve good grades at school – they are highly likely to go to university. 

“As the Sutton Trust survey shows, a clear majority (60%) of potential university applicants said it would be worth paying a higher tuition fee if it increased their chances of getting a well-paid job. Studying at a Russell Group university attracts an earnings top-up of 10% over a lifetime compared with other graduates.

“In order for our universities to stay internationally competitive, provide a first-rate teaching experience and offer generous support to disadvantaged students, we will need to increase funding from a range of public and private sources. The introduction of variable fees has managed to halt the long-term decline in funding per student. But funding for higher education in the UK is significantly lower than most other OECD countries, and particularly our primary competitors, meaning there is a real danger that our success will not be sustained. 

“Graduates, employers and society all benefit from higher education, but taxpayers currently pay the lion’s share of the cost. An increase in graduate contributions is the fairest and only viable option for addressing the funding shortfall.”

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