For many students in the UK today, deciding whether or not to go to university can be as much about affordability as it is about ambition and aspiration.
In times gone by, students in the UK could apply to a university or college safe in the knowledge that, even if they came from a low income family, their tuition fees and some of their living(or maintenance) costs would be covered by a local authority grant. A university education was, in a financial sense, open to all and the number of students attending university grew year on year.
Sadly, it seems, those days are long gone. The turning point came in 1998, when the Labour Government introduced tuition fees of ￡1,000 a year and, instead of giving students a maintenance grant, asked them to cover their own living expenses with a repayable student loan. Only students on the lowest incomes were entitled to a grant.
The flood gates had been opened. As time passed, the ceiling on tuition fees rose, and although applicants from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales still qualified for varying levels of subsidy, by 2009/10 students in England often found themselves facing tuition fees in excess of ￡3,000 a year.
But the biggest change was still to come. In 2011 the Government announced that, from 2012, universities could charge fees of up to ￡9,000 a year. Although the Government sweetened the pill by stating that postgraduates did not have to begin repaying their student loans until they were earning more than ￡21,000 a year, the news created outrage. Many students argued that it was unfair that students should have to begin their work life saddled with huge debt, while others complained that the changes would bring back a class divide to university education. These views were reflected in the number of students applying for a university place, which by January 2012 fell by more than 22,000. The Universities Minister, David Willetts, stood by the decision to increase tuition fees, saying that they would not “put universities’ finance on a sustainable footing” and facilitate “a stronger focus on high quality teaching.”