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HEi-think: Student funding proposals expose tensions over social mobility aims

The latest proposals for making the student funding system fairer, in a new report from the Sutton Trust, show how contradictory policies can arise out of social mobility objectives, warns Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.


Peter Lampl, the founder and chairman of the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, is a brilliant man.

Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said that her greatest regret was that, as the tax burden on individuals went down, philanthropy did not go up commensurately.

That accusation could not be levelled at Sir Peter, who has put both the good fortune he enjoyed in his early life and his own private financial fortune to excellent use. Indeed, he has probably done more than any one individual to put social mobility at the heart of British politics. As a result, it has become the one issue that all new party leaders feel they have to address, just as Theresa May did in Downing Street son the day she became Prime Minister.

The Sutton Trust’s value comes from being a ‘do tank’ as well as a ‘think tank’. They have the resources to put their ideas to the test and, rather impressively, commission full and frank evaluation of their initiatives before publishing the results for all to see. Many lesser bodies seek to emulate their success.

Yet there is an inherent tension within the Sutton Trust’s work. On the one hand, they display a desire to follow the evidence on how to improve educational outcomes overall. On the other hand, there sits Sir Peter’s original motivation on founding the organisation, which was to enable more people from modest backgrounds to reach highly-selective universities, as he once did.

Endless wrestling with this dilemma has put the Sutton Trust in a position where it can seem to favour seemingly contradictory policies. While they are strongly in favour of the government sponsoring places at highly-selective independent schools, they expressed deep scepticism when Theresa May was planning to open new selective state schools.

Such tension is evident again today in their new report on student funding. They have the right starting point: it is indeed outrageous that the poorest students emerge from university with the biggest debts.

This reflects the appalling decision to abolish student maintenance grants. It was wrong when David Blunkett abolished them in 1998, but at least this was recognised a few years later and they were reintroduced in 2004 (not 2006, as the Sutton Trust’s report claims). It was just as wrong to abolish them for a second time, when Sajid Javid did it in 2016.

Yet the Sutton Trust’s proposed model of implementing means-tested tuition fees alongside the reintroduction of maintenance grants has an annual gross cost of £7.8 billion. Even after netting off the savings from lower student loan write-offs – which is an exceedingly odd thing to do in accounting terms – there is still a cost of £3.2 billion. (I am intentionally ignoring their even more expensive set of proposals, which has an even higher net price tag of £4.1 billion.)

The purpose of all this expensive reorganisation is, apparently, to ensure that school leavers are not put off from higher education by the prospect of relatively large student loans. But this is a problem that is unproven, to put it mildly.

Since £9,000 fees came in, England has kept breaking its own records on the proportion of young people from tougher backgrounds entering full-time higher education. There are much bigger problems facing our higher education system than the one the Sutton Trust claims to have found – for example, the collapse in part-time student numbers, which is considered in a new paper by Peter Horrocks appearing on the HEPI website today.

The Sutton Trust paper also ignores the fact that people who go to university are adults. The funding system that I helped implement while working for the Coalition Government back in 2012 was built on the sound underlying logic that the amount you pay for tuition should depend on how well you do financially after graduation. If you start off poor but your degree makes you rich, then you repay your full tuition fees (and sometimes a little more); if you hail from a wealthy family but end up in penury, you pay nothing.

In stark contrast, in the Sutton Trust’s modelling, ‘those from the poorest backgrounds emerged with two thirds less debt than their better-off counterparts’ irrespective of their performance in the labour market after graduation. It is hard to see any circumstance in which that could be deemed a good use of today’s scarce resources – or fair.

Sadly, the risk is that the Sutton Trust’s main overarching objective would be hampered by their own funding model. Higher education delivers social mobility and people who aspire to go to university need two things above all: a sufficient number of university places, so that there is somewhere for them to go; and enough cash in their pockets to live on without dropping out. Both would be harder to deliver in a much more expensive student funding model of the sort that the Sutton Trust are now proposing.

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