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February 2016
Kerry Harman, Birkbeck, University of London

In a recent article in the Guardian titled ‘The evidence suggests I was completely wrong about tuition feesMartin Robbins claims that:

The data simply couldn’t be clearer. In the last decade, in spite of rising tuition fees, students are more likely to apply for university, poorer students are more likely to apply for university, and the inequality gap – while still a problem – has closed. We’re not talking about small debatable improvements here – these are massive changes.

The problem with Robbins’ claim is that he only cites part of the available evidence, that is, the statistics for 18 to 21 year old students applying to HE. As those of us working on programmes in English universities that provide access to HE for low income, mature students, often without A level (or equivalent) qualifications know, enrolment in HE by a more diverse range of students has declined. 

A more complete picture of the current crisis in English HE is provided when data for all students attending HE in England is examined, rather than just a section of the student population and a section of HE programmes. A recent report on Higher Education in England reveals that between 2010/11 and 2014/15, there was a 55% decrease (143,000 fewer entrants) in part-time enrolments in HE in England, with a 10% drop (13,000 fewer enrolments) between 2013/14 and 2014/15. While not all part time students are mature age, and not all mature students (21plus) are entering HE for the first time, many are. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data indicate that in the 2010/11 academic year 95,720 mature students with no previous HE entered part-time study in HE in England, and 16,965 of these were from low participation neighbourhoods (POLAR3). In 2013/14 enrolments had decreased to 49,775 entrants with no previous HE, with 9,110 from low participation neighbourhoods. The drastic decline in enrolments has led Callender, who has undertaken extensive research on student finance and participation in HE, to demand that ‘We must act now to save part-time university education’.

A similar decline can also be seen in the decrease in numbers of mature students without HE qualifications enrolled on other undergraduate programmes, that is, programmes other than degrees. In 2010/11 there were 16, 405 students on other undergraduate programmes (with 3,070 of these being POLAR3 students) and this decreased to 6,665 students (including 1,315 POLAR 3) in 2013/14. Moreover, the decline in enrolment of mature students is also evident in fulltime degree study in England. In 2013/14, 41,360 mature students with no previous HE entered the first year of fulltime degree study and of these, 7675 were from low participation neighbourhoods (POLAR3). This was a drop, however, from the 57,780 (9,720 from low participation neighbourhoods) mature students with no previous HE studying fulltime in 2010/11.

A closer look at the detail of enrolments in English HE by particular categories of student suggests that Martin Robbins might not be as wrong as he originally thought about tuition fees and that perhaps Corbyn’s suggestion to abandon tuition fees might not be as wacky as Robbins implies.