Jeremy Corbyn was campaigning in the North East this week when he said:
What’s this government done?… increased fees in universities now up to, in most cases, £9,000 per year. And do you know what the result of that is? Fewer students from working-class communities going to university.
Most of the evidence does not support the Labour leader’s claim.
Labour first introduced tuition fees in 1998. Students had to pay up to £1,000 a year, depending on their parents’ income.
The Conservative-led coalition increased fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year from the 2012/13 academic year.
Fees charged by English universities are now capped at £9,250 and can rise with inflation from this year.
The English funding model is the only one fully under the control of Westminster. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland the devolved governments have varying degrees of control over higher education funding and have introduced different systems.
For Jeremy Corbyn’s claim to be true, we would need evidence of working class people in England being less likely to go to university following the fees hike in 2012/13.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) used to publish figures on how many people from working class backgrounds – as defined by the official NS-SEC classifications – went to university.
The figures from 2009/10 to 2014/15 (here – Table B) show that the percentage of young people doing their first degree in English universities who were from the lower NS-SEC classes went up every year, before and after the decision to increase tuition fees:
There is no percentage for 2015/16 because HESA stopped using the class-based data, saying it was “widely acknowledged to be of poor quality”.
There are lots of other ways of measuring the socioeconomic background of students, and most of them tell a similar story.
HESA also keeps track of the proportion of private and state-educated pupils who go to university.
The percentage of young students studying full-time for a first degree in England who went to a state school has also risen every year since 2010/11. The figure for 2015/16 is just under 90 per cent:
The share of the same kind of students who came from disadvantaged neighbourhoods has risen from 9.6 per cent in 2009/10 to 11.3 per cent in 2015/16 (here – Table B)
The University admissions service UCAS also publishes stats on who is applying for university.
The percentage of 18-year-olds entering English universities who were from the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and who were eligible for free school meals aged 15, has also risen consistently:
The only data source we can find which might help Mr Corbyn is a paper from the Department for Education which shows that the proportion of state pupils who got free meals at 15 and went on to higher education fell slightly from 2012/13 to 2013/14:
The latest figures available are from 2013/14 so we don’t know if there is a long-term trend here.
All of these states measure different things so they are not directly comparable with each other.
It’s debatable how much any of the different indicators – school; neighbourhood; eligibility for free school meals – is a good definition of “working class”.
It’s hard to agree on a definition of “working class” and we don’t know exactly what Jeremy Corbyn meant by it.
Most official statistics show that the proportion of students at English universities who came from less well-off backgrounds continued to increase even after the coalition government upped tuition fees.
So there doesn’t appear to be a strong causal link between the level of fees and numbers of poorer students attending university.
We asked Labour if there was a source for Mr Corbyn’s remarks, and we’ll happily update this if we get any response from them.