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Higher fees narrow student choices, study finds

Young people from deprived areas are narrowing their choices of where and what course to study because of tuition fees of £9,000 a year, according to new research.

They are choosing to live and study closer to home than youngsters from better-off families and they are choosing courses they might not otherwise have chosen.

The study, Does Cost Matter?, produced by the National Education Opportunities Network, found that reducing fees to £6,000 as the Labour Party is proposing, would make more than half of young people take less paid work during term-time. They would therefore have more energy left over for their studies and might do better as a result.

Moreover, almost 40 per cent would reconsider the course they had selected and choose a subject they preferred.

“Cost does matter,” said Dr Graeme Atherton, director of NEON and an author of the report. “The number going into higher education has not declined as we expected. But that doesn’t mean that the choices of those from low socio-economic groups are not affected.”

The research, which surveyed almost 1,500 young people applying to higher education in 2015, found that more than 70 per cent wanted to go to university because they were interested in their chosen subject and had a desire to experience higher education.

Although they were concerned about the cost and the debt they would pile up, they wanted to pursue their personal and professional ambitions through higher education.

But they were hampered by their lack of understanding of the student finance system. More than four in 10 did not know if they were eligible for a maintenance grant and fewer than a fifth knew that they could borrow money for living costs. More than 70 per cent underestimated the amount they could borrow.

“This research suggests that many young people are having their higher education choices, and potentially their chances of success in higher education, restricted by fear of debt and lack of knowledge,” said Dr Atherton.

“As student numbers increase, the new government needs to invest in a system that can enable young people to get the best from their investment in higher education.”

The report found that fewer than 35 per cent of applicants in the survey remember doing any specific work at school in Key Stage 3 – between the ages of 11 and 14 – on progressing to higher education. Even fewer recollect doing anything with higher education institutions – less than a fifth of learners reported any contact with universities at Key Stage 3.

Applicants reporting that their school offered higher education progression support were 15 percentage points more likely to know what a loan was than those who reported that their school offered no activities.

The majority of learners reported that they would reconsider applying to university if tuition fees were increased to more than £15,000 a year. But many students said that they would still attend university at any price if they could borrow the money to do so.

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