The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (also known in these parts as “the other HESA”) put out an interesting report recently on participation in higher education in England (available here). England is of course of great interest to access researchers everywhere because its massive tuition hike in 2012 is a major natural policy experiment: if there is no clear evidence of changes in access after a tuition hike of that magnitude then we can be more confident that tuition hikes elsewhere won’t have much of an effect either (assuming students are all given loans to cover the fees as they are in England). I’ve written about previously about some of the evidence that has come out to date back here, here, here and here: mostly the evidence has shown little to no effect on low-income students making a direct transition to university, but some effects on older students.
The new (other) HESA report is interesting. You may have seen the Guardian headline on this, which was that since the change in fees, the percentage of state school students who proceeded to higher education by the age of 19 fell from 66% to 62% in the years either side of the policy change (note: regular state-school students make up a little over 83% of those enrolled in A-level or equivalent courses, with the rest split about equally between selective state schools and independent schools). On the face of it, that’s a pretty bad result for those concerned about access.
But there are three other little nuggets in the report which the Guardian chose to ignore. The first was that if you looked simply at those who took A-levels, the drop was much smaller (from 74% to 72%). Thus the biggest drop was from those taking what are known as “A-level equivalents” (basically, applied A-levels). The second is that among the very poorest students – that is, those who receive free school meals, essentially all of whom are in the main state sector – enrolment rates essentially didn’t move at all. They were 21% in 2011/12, 23% in 2012/13 and 22% in 2013/14. All of this is a long way up from 13% observed in 2005, the year before students from families with incomes below £20,000 had to start paying tuition. Third and last, the progression rate of state school students to the most selective institutions didn’t change at all, either.
So what this means is that the decline was most concentrated not on the poor in state schools but in the middle-class, and landed more on students with “alternative” credentials. That doesn’t make a loss of access any more acceptable, but it does put a crimp in the theory that the drop was *caused* by higher tuition fees. If “affordability” (or perceived affordability) were the issue, why would it hit middle-income students more than lower-income students? If affordability were the issue, why would it be differentially affecting those taking alternative credentials? There some deeper questions to answer here.