Monday, 3 July 2017

Increased tuition fees do not cause increased participation

Tuition fees are back on the political agenda, big time. Arguably a significant component in the unexpected relative success of the Labour Party at the 2017 General Election, there are now calls by senior Ministers for a ‘national debate’ on the issue: see, for instance, Damian Green’s speech to the Bright Blue think tank on the weekend.

One aspect of this which is worth examining is the connection between fees and access: on the one hand there us the fear that debt will put people off university (and hinder their subsequent life-chances); on the other there is the evidence that participation by students from less advantaged backgrounds has grown since the introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012. I've seen it argued - by people including a Vice-Chancellor of a UK university - that fees have helped with this process.

But of course, correlation does not imply causality. And because higher education is a devolved matter, there’s a simple experiment which can shed light on the question about whether fees encourage participation.

Scottish domiciled students pay no tuition fees if they attend Scottish universities. If they attend universities in England they pay the normal home rate – that is, £9,000. HESA data lets us see whether more Scottish students attended universities in England after fees were increased in 2012, which they should if tuition fees encouraged greater participation.

Here’s the data. It shows the number of undergraduate students attending universities in England from each of the four UK nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (NI). The data covers the years 2008-09 to 2015-16: that is, four years under the £3k tuition fee regime and four years under the £9k regime. The number of English students is several orders of magnitude higher than those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so I’ve used two vertical axes. The left had axis show student numbers from Wales, Scotland and NI; the right hand axis shows students from England.

Data from HESA Student data, table N
The chart shows that the number of English students at English universities grew over the eight years, from about 780,000 to 925,000. The number of Welsh and Northern Irish students at English Universities also grew, from 15,000 to 22,000 in the case of Wales, and from just shy of 8,000 to just over 9,000 in the case of Northern Ireland.

The number of Scottish students at English universities did not grow. 4,840 Scottish students attended English universities in 2008-09; 4,255 attended in 2015-16.  And just to be clear, there isn’t a peculiar effect of declining number of eligible Scottish students: the number of Scottish students attending Scottish universities grew from about 84,000 to about 94,000 over the same period.

So it seems that tuition fees do not cause increased participation. The growth in English students can be explained by the availability of places: the cap on recruitment was removed in the couple of years following 2012, giving universities an incentive to recruit as many students as they wished. But if students could study in their home country for free, as in the case of Scotland, they were immune to the charms and marketing persuasions of English universities.

So when the debate plays out, be careful to spot when correlation (growth in student numbers in England) elides into claims of causation. The evidence is that tuition fees do not cause a growth in student numbers.

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