HE or not HE: it’s the parents, stupid

17 Jul 13

Why are some young people deterred from applying to university by tuition fees, while others appear unconcerned? New research suggests that parental earnings and education are strong influencing factors

The quid pro quo for the introduction of university tuition fees for students from England has always been a suite of policy measures to ensure those from deprived backgrounds do not feel put off higher education by the cost.

The Office for Fair Access and the ‘widening participation’ agenda has linked the ability to charge higher fees by universities to their efforts to reach out to those groups underrepresented in higher education. With the 2012 reforms to student finance and the lifting of the cap on tuition fees to £9,000 per year, the emphasis on this agenda has redoubled, even as the 2012 reforms have in many respects made the student financing system more generous.

However, there’s always been an absence of quantitative social science research on who is deterred from university by the cost and why. For this reason, the Strategic Society Centre recently published some research, Access for All, using a social survey called the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. It represents the most detailed and robust source of data to explore these issues. The data is longitudinal, and so our analysis was able to track backwards and forwards, for example, to explore young people’s ultimate decisions around higher education.

The research was big and multifaceted, but if I had to sum up its findings in the Clintonesque way so beloved of public policy analysts, I would have to say: 'It’s the parents, stupid.'

For example, as expected, parental earnings and education predicted young people’s concerns with the cost of university. But, interestingly, the parental experience of higher education also counted: those with graduate parents were less likely to have financial concerns, but if graduate parents were employed in non-graduate jobs, this ‘protective effect’ falls away.

Put simply, those who had seen their parents not obtain the financial benefits of higher education were more likely to have financial concerns about university. This suggests a reassuring capability for cost-benefit analysis among young people and underlines the importance of the income-contingent student loan repayment system. However, it also shows the clear potential for a range of factors to influence young people’s judgements as to the value of a degree.

Elsewhere, parental expectations of their child’s participation in higher education, and financial planning by parents, were also important predictors of young people’s financial concerns with the cost of higher education.

This all raises a much bigger question: as England adjusts to a new student finance system, has enough been done to inform parents and families of these changes? Young people will not make decisions around university in isolation, and our research identified the strong influence of both parents and teachers.

Even though the 2012 reforms may make higher education a rational long-term investment, young people will still be influenced by the perceptions, attitudes and norms held by others. Consider the following: can we really expect young people to hold wildly differing views about the value of higher education to their parents? Given the identifiable influence of parents, do we not need to be measuring and targeting the knowledge and attitudes of parents specifically in related policy interventions?

At the launch of the Access for All research, it was put to Universities Minister David Willetts that we should be reaching out to the parents of primary school children to educate them about the student finance system. This may be overreach, but the radically different nature of the 2012 student finance regime will still feel alien to many of those in middle-age and above, who will be the key influences on young people’s attitudes to investing in higher education.

There is even an emotional aspect to this: some parents will have to get used to the idea that their children will have larger loans against their name than they have themselves.

Although there are indications that the ‘captive audience’ of secondary school pupils are able to understand and feel comfortable with the new student finance regime, our research suggests we also need to reach much further to address influences on young people’s higher education decisions outside the classroom.

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