Jayne Dowle: The costly barriers that stand in the way of an university education

Are degrees too expensive?
Are degrees too expensive?
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I’VE been reading the thoughts of some very clever people on the plight of white working-class boys. It’s a subject dear to my heart. I know a lot of them. My own son is 15. He’s as working class as his mates, apart from a quirk of his mother’s university education and subsequent career as a writer.

We live in Barnsley, for a start. He attends the local academy school and he loves football. His grandad was a steelworker and his stepfather is a builder. His friends have parents who work in supermarkets, mend roads, fit kitchens and keep the wheels of the country turning.

If I ask Jack what class he is, he will conclude that he’s more working class than anything else.

So this new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), which concludes that white working-class boys need more help to go to university than any other demographic, is of great interest. It identifies 30 gaps in policy which need addressing, from improving access to mental health services to allowing applications to university after A-levels, rather than the anxious scramble of predicted grades before.

This is all extremely interesting and should give politicians and policy-makers some serious issues to address. However, there is one thing that cuts through all the arguments. And that’s the fact that the biggest bar to university education for white working-class boys is not the belief that they lack concentration or are more likely than others to take free school meals, it’s the fact that the cost of studying for a degree terrifies them.

I’m not just talking about the tripling of tuition fees to at least £9,000 a year, and paucity of state support or maintenance grants. This in itself is bad enough, leaving the average graduate with lifetime debts of about £40,000 and a punishing interest rate far higher than a comparative commercial loan.

If you think this sounds like a huge sum of money, just imagine what it sounds like to your average teenage boy. Even my own son, who has ambitions to be a history teacher, wants to find a way of achieving this without having to study for a degree. It’s the cost that scares him more than anything.

Even though he knows his family will help as far as we can, he’s a proud lad who wants to enter adulthood without a shackle round his neck.

However, even before university, the cost of studying rather than finding a job or signing up for an apprenticeship are off-putting. Since David Cameron’s coalition Government scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance in 2011, which provided financial support for students in post-16 education, countless youngsters have been deterred from attending college to study for A-levels or advanced vocational qualifications.

It’s impossible to quantify this of course, because you can’t possibly ask every individual. However, talk to any group of working-class teenagers with long memories or older brothers and sisters and they will tell you that financial imperatives now override all other concerns regarding their choices.

And these choices are not always clearly laid out to Year 11 pupils. “Modern apprenticeships”, while a laudable initiative, have clouded the landscape still further. Politicians are right to promote this hands-on workplace training as a practical option for school-leavers. However, it would be interesting to see whether the efforts made to encourage take-up has actually had a detrimental effect on numbers who might otherwise have taken the plunge and considered university instead.

Again, it’s difficult to quantify. I can only go on anecdotal evidence. Despite the efforts of teachers and careers advisors, I do know that there is still much confusion in state schools about the realities of what happens after the age of 16.

I’d like to see the options laid out much earlier; ideally from Year Five or Six of primary school, when visits to universities and colleges would plant a seed of aspiration.

And now public finances are apparently on a better footing, the Blair-era Gifted and Talented national academy which identified outstanding academic, creative or sporting potential, should be revived. And let’s have no nonsense about it being elitist, as social mobility campaigner Alan Milburn once said.

It should be run for the benefit of bright working class kids, rather than middle-class families attempting to hitch a ride. Its role would be to identify and nurture those capable of exceeding the expectations of their environment.

Schools must play a role here. Keep track of the few who actually do rise above it all and encourage them to come back to school and talk to current pupils about what it’s really like at university.

In return for a better-educated population, the Government should re-structure university funding, and divert pay rises for fat-cat vice-chancellors into student support. It is entirely invidious to bemoan the lack of white working-class boys in higher education and at the same time put up barrier after barrier.