Should the amount your parents’ earn have an effect on your university fees?

The Sutton Trust, a respected education think-tank, is worried that poor kids choose not to go to university because it’s too expensive and says fees should be means-tested. It’s wrong.

There are two issues here. The first is that university fees are too expensive. The second is that poor students should be given more help than richer ones.

The Trust is right that the new £9,000 per year fees are scaring people away – university applications dipped after the new fees were announced and still haven’t recovered to pre-2010 levels. But four in five young people say they are likely go to university (although less than half of young Brits actually do), showing ambition is still high.

The Trust wants the government to means-test student fees. Not because they want rich students to pay more, but because they want poorer students to pay less and not worry so much about the money. This is silly, in my view, for two reasons:

1) Very few young people are actually rich. What the Trust is talking about is measuring householder taxable income, which is something else entirely. Just because someone is rich doesn’t mean they’ll give money to their kids, even if you think they ought to.

2) The current system puts everyone on a level playing field anyway. Forget about maintenance loans, which are means tested and go more to the poorer students to help with living. Student fees are £9,000 for everyone (unless you’re bright enough to get a scholarship). The idea is that after graduation the poor and the rich alike have an equal earning capacity, armed with a degree, to pay that loan back. So means-testing the fees would just be positive discrimination in favour of the poorer students.

If two-thirds of school pupils are “alarmed by the cost of a degree“, then that’s fair enough. They should be. It’s bloody expensive. But if poorer students are more put off and afraid of going, educate them. Fees are the same for everyone, and should stay that way. If living is too expensive for poorer students, then up the amount they get through maintenance grants.

Bottom line: education at every level should be equally accessible to all. But don’t assume rich parents = rich kids.

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