We need to make sure all young people know the true facts about higher education

Simon Hughes MP, the government's Advocate for Access to Education, writes on the need for everyone to be honest, and not to put people off higher education.

Simon Hughes MP (Liberal Democrats, Bermondsey and Old Southwark) is HM Government’s Advocate for Access to Education

This week a poll conducted by the Sutton Trust revealed more than a fifth of 11-16 year olds believe their families will have to pay for the cost of university tuition. A further 10 per cent believed students paid for university with money they earned before and during their studies.

A recent report by Virgin Money revealed that one in four parents have started saving to pay for their children’s university fees.

This situation is clearly unacceptable. And now as we start a month where higher education is again back on the agenda, with today’s publication of the White Paper on higher education, and the decision of the Director of Fair Access on university access agreements due soon, there must be a concerted effort once and for all to destroy the myths around the new student finance system.

The negative politics surrounding student finance must end.

All too often in the recent past, politicians and others have given greater priority to attacking the government, rather than advancing the interests of young people and students. Politicians of all parties, student leaders, trade unionists and all others with a public platform and who are listened to on these issues must now make sure that they know the facts and do everything to make sure young people and their parents also understand the facts and are not misled.

I know that many people in the Labour Party and others have seen a political advantage in spreading the myth that university will now become unaffordable. To misrepresent the costs and payment methods for student tuition is not in the interests of any young person who this year or next will be making crucial decisions about their future.

This is the decision I made last year when I was asked to be the government’s Advocate for Access to Education. Despite not voting for the policy on student finance, and having campaigned for years against student fees, I decided that it was much more important, now that the decision had been made, to make sure that we got out there and did all we can to make sure that young people were not put off by many of the misunderstandings which had come out of the heated debate on higher education policies.

Let me be clear where we are. No university student studying for their first degree either full time or part time will be obliged to pay any fees starting in 2012. No university student has to pay anything to their university for tuition during their studies and no graduate will be obliged to pay anything back until they are paying at least £21,000 a year. After that, they pay back a proportion of their income through the tax system.

Whatever our thoughts on the politics of university finance, no one should say that anything that the government has done will make university tuition unaffordable. And no one should pretend that the system as introduced is not very similar to the graduate tax proposed by the National Union of Students.

The policy also includes part time students for the first time which means they will no longer have to pay up front fees, repayments are made starting at a higher income, and there is now a mechanism for making very high paid graduates contribute more to the financing of the higher education system than lower paid graduates. These changes make the new system of student finance much fairer and more progressive than the one this government inherited.

Young people between the ages of 11-16, the subject of the Sutton Trust’s study, are making crucial decisions on which courses to take and at which school or college. These decisions can have a major impact on their options after they leave school, and they should not be based on an idea of the university system which is simply not true.

There are also many people who will soon start applying to university to begin in 2012, the first year of the new student finance system.

Over the last six months I have been travelling around the country to meet students, parents and teachers to discuss the higher education reforms and what it means for them, as well as collecting their views on what government and others can do to promote access to education. I have found that, when the facts of the student finance system are made clear, young people and their parents are almost all far more comfortable with the idea of going to university.

I will shortly be sending my report to ministers which will outline how the country and the government can do better in the future to improve access to education for young people, and in particular how we can improve the information, advice and guidance which young people are provided with when they have to make key decisions about their future.

I have already made recommendations to the prime minister and deputy prime minister on how the government can do more to communicate with young people who might be applying in 2012.

However, many of these efforts will be in vain if people in all walks of life do not challenge the misconceptions which surround student finance.

We now all have a duty to make sure we go out into our communities and into the media and make sure that young people know the facts. Whatever our views on the reforms of higher education, we cannot any longer let party politics get in the way of the aspirations and futures of our young people.

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36 Responses to “We need to make sure all young people know the true facts about higher education”

  1. Carly Mae

    We need to make sure all young people know the true facts about higher education: http://bit.ly/lHAUKM writes Simon Hughes MP

  2. Toque

    See how Simon Hughes MP manages to avoid saying the word 'England' http://t.co/dKjm1af when writing about HE in England.

  3. Robert Weale

    See how Simon Hughes MP manages to avoid saying the word 'England' http://t.co/dKjm1af when writing about HE in England.

  4. 13eastie

    It’s a great pity that some have encouraged sixth-formers and their parents to believe that up-front costs mean they cannot afford to study for a degree.

    If so-called ‘progressives’ really believed in social mobility, they would be working to put a stop to the lies that intentionally undermine perhaps its biggest enabler.

    So why don’t they?

  5. Alasdair

    Quite right. How about also telling them that up to 100% of the state funding for their course has been cut?

  6. Ceiliog

    Regarding your headline: I thought that facts were true by definition. Do false facts exist?

  7. Young people must get the facts on Higher Education – Hughes

    […] Hughes MP, the Government’s advocate for access to Higher Education, has a piece over at Left Foot Forward today, on the confusion surrounding student […]

  8. Simon_M

    Really don’t understand why we can fund education until a student is 18 but then abruptly cut off funding. Why? Because we can’t afford to fund 18+ education? Errmm. No. More like we CHOOSE not to fund post 18 education. It is affordable. And, as another, sad point errmmm, how can and why should we believe the current coalition? Not got a good track record on honesty.

  9. John

    Simon Hughes doesn’t seem to have got many of his facts right – at all.

    1) Under the current system, the one being phased out, full-time students do not pay for their tuition fees during their studies. Therefore the fact that students will not do so under the new system is no improvement.

    2) Under the new system, the debt will a) be nearly triple that of current students for many; b) will last considerably longer due to the higher threshold; and c) will have a higher rate of interest attached so that it will cost more.

    3) The only reason fees must rise is because of the deep and very damaging cuts this new government is implementing with little consideration of what effect it will have on those affected.

    4) They say it is fairer than the old system. As a current student, I know for a fact that many current students and sixth formers think the old system was better.

    5) The current government said before that universities would only be able to charge the higher fees “in exceptional circumstances”. It has now been proved that most universities want to charge the higher fees. If the government had bothered to do the maths they would have realised that this was inevitable. Due to the depth of the cuts, for universities to maintain their current funding, fees would have to be an average of around £7,500 per year. To be allowed to charge over £6,000 universities must provide significant financial aid to poorer students. To be able to afford that, universities must charge an average of at least £8,000 – £8,500. At that point, they might as well go the full £9k.

    5b) They said fees over nine thousand pounds would be the exception rather than the rule. That’s been proved wrong. What else are they “mistaken” about?

  10. Rachel

    Given that Simon Hughes wishes to “be clear”, he would do well to avoid silly mistakes in his exposition: “no graduate will be obliged to pay anything back until they are paying at least £21,000 a year”.

    “Earning”, Simon, or perhaps “being paid”. Definitely not “paying”.

  11. Lumi

    Steady on Simon. A few facts: Fees at most places will be going up three fold to about £9k a year. Students can expect to leave degree courses with debts of about £27k. Students are already falling into debt trying to support themselves. So add another £10k, based on living on something akin to benefit levels (I’m not including money for rent, books, extras like a night out). And they are to start paying back at a salary that’s 80% of the average wage, with a 30 year lock in before it is written off. How long would it take to repay £37k? Repayments are set at 9 per cent of income above £21,000. And there is interest to pay. For graduates earning between £21k and £41k interest will be applied between RPI and RPI + 3%. Above £41k, interest is at RPI + 3%. RPI crucially leaves out housing costs. Not likely to go down are they? For those with £25,000 worth of loans, the difference between RPI and CPI repayments is over £4.5k. And yet Simon says “…no one should say that anything that the government has done will make university tuition unaffordable.” Well, that depends on what you think is affordable. Have you asked the good people of Southwark? The Lib Dems trumpeted Vince Cable’s prescience over mounting debt. That was before the election of course. Now, only stilled voices, unwilling or afraid to speak out against generational injustice and act of wanton state sponsored attack against social mobility. You were Saint Simon once.

  12. Ashley R. Bullard

    We need to make sure all young people know the true facts about higher education: http://bit.ly/lHAUKM writes Simon Hughes MP

  13. Leon Wolfson

    What nonsense.

    Parents are quite right to start saving for University fees. By paying up front, they will avoid their children paying out far more than the real costs of their student loan, over the course of their working life.

    Many of the most talented students will go abroad, where fees are much cheaper. I know a 16 year old (who’s a year ahead at school) who makes me – and I’m “highly gifted” – look slow. He comes from quite a poor family, and UK university would cost him just as much as America’s needs-blind-admission Ivy League. Guess where he wants to go?

    John – Universities don’t WANT to charge the higher fees. They NEED to charge the higher fees. £6k isn’t break-even, and above that they need to spend a significant portion of the extra on “access” deals – hence charging £9k becomes a nearly-irresistible move.

    The problem is that, like in Wales, I believe the Government will reject most of the University plans, and then whine when hundreds of courses and dozens of departments are slashed as a direct result.

    Labour were already doing badly – their fees and insufficient investment were already causing a situation of falling percentages of graduates, and it’ll fall much further under the Tories. And that means, quite simply, EU graduates taking the good jobs here.

    Also, my VL work is unlikely to survive, which pisses me off, since I teach a rapidly-expanding media subject. Although the Government has chased off at *least* 2 billion in investment in said subject to Canada… (Something about “tapping the global jobs market”)

    Finally, I thought this was *left* foot forward. No, I really am shallow enough to take the dig.

  14. Iain Houten

    We need to make sure all young people know the true facts about higher education: http://bit.ly/lHAUKM writes Simon Hughes MP

  15. Jen

    And today we are told that 83 graduates are chasing every job ? By the time some grads actually get a job they may be old enough to have the debt written off – in the meantime ”shelf stacking” I think not, well not in TJ Hughs, Habitat, Thorntons etc facing closures ( I suspect the ”shelves to stack”’ are getting fewer)so the governments next bright idea is ? Maybe Tesco funded degrees ?

  16. Leon Wolfson

    And what’s this guardian article?

    “David Willetts opens up market for student places”


  17. Shamik Das

    Dear Leon, yes, you are right, we are called Left Foot Forward, and as such will take articles from Liberal Democrats, Green, members of other parties and none – this is not a site for Labour alone. You can criticise Simon all you like, but I think it would be an error to suggest he’s not left wing; anyone who heard his speech to Compass conference will tell you that.

    And on the substance of what he says, we must all be wary of deterring anyone from going to university – let’s present the facts and let them decide.

    All the best, Shamik

  18. Leon Wolfson

    Shamik; Regardless, this is pushing a policy – marketisation of higher education – which is decidedly right-wing, and I don’t apologise for the dig on the issue. (And it seems the suggestion of pay-for-places is back, only now filtered via “charities and companies”, no less)

    As a note – I have, and do, argue that the current political system means all three major parties are actually coalitions themselves, something which would only be broken by PR. I’m sure that means some of the current government are left-leaning, but

  19. Leon Wolfson

    …but as they’re part of the government, I’m not going to give them a break on right-wing policies.

    (hit submit too soon ^^)

  20. 13eastie

    It’s a pretty poor show that virtually all the commentators above would rather address anything but the point being raised by Simon Hughes.

    Shamik is the only poster who has advocated making sure that six-formers are not deceived.

    There are many bright children with well-meaning parents who have been tricked into believing that starting a university course is not an option because they do not have the funds.

    It is very shabby indeed that “progressive” people, who claim self-righteously to have these kids’ interests at heart, are so happy to see them be misled into making an opportunity-limiting decision on false pretences. In order that grubby party-political mud-slinging be optimised.

    There is little more cynical.

    And it does the left’s cause no good at all for its strategy in opposition to appear so obviously to be based solely on scaremongering.

    You don’t win people’s affections by frightening them.

    It might not happen soon enough to prevent them from losing out on something that could have made a massive and detrimental impact on their chances, but young people will surely realise eventually who has been lying to them, and they will never forgive it.

  21. parent

    surely no one is doing a degree to be unemployed ? I think it’s shocking that some students will feel they have paid for the heartbreak. They will be more qualified than the Job Centre bod – be good if the Grads could have their own job centres instead of ”Job Fairs” that charge Grads entrance fees and over priced refreshments just to get to hear companies tell them to go home and apply on-line ! oh and a bundle of leaflets

  22. mr. Sensible

    John you’ve got it spot on. What’s more, this is creating a black hole in the public finances.

  23. bigboi

    load of rubbish. this is not a fairer system – everybody is paying more just poorer students less extra, however given their background they are more likely to be put off by the raise in fees.

    “No university student studying for their first degree either full time or part time will be obliged to pay any fees starting in 2012.”

    nor would they under the current system. you say its like a graduate tax but it is not. it is not proportional a super rich kiddy can pay it off in a day while a low medium income student can slave to pay it off for the rest of his life. you liar

  24. bigboi

    anyway why would an 11 year old know about uni fees you stupid moron

  25. Leon Wolfson

    13eastie – They’re NOT decieved. That’s precisely WHY parents are saving. Precisely why bright kids are going abroad or not going to University. These are predictable, and predicted, results of this.

    And it’ll cost more than the previous system.

    The only people surprised are the Tories. As usual.

  26. Leon Wolfson

    Oh, and bear in mind that unless they radically change the current funding delivery arrangements, you WILL in many cases need the money up-front, since the SLC is usually extremely tardy with their payments. Or you can lose a week+ of university access multiple times during the University year.

    It’s bad enough *now*.

  27. Elijah

    Whilst it is true that no student is required to pay tuition fees upfront, i do not agree that this exempts fees from the ability to call them unaffordable.

    I go to medical school, around 40% of my year is graduates and many of the rest are from privileged backgrounds. A large section of these people have their fees paid for them (and many their living expenses) by their parents and as such will leave university with little or no debt (even after two degrees). I do not have this luxury, my parents could not afford to pay my fees for one degree let alone two, luckily i am going into a profession where the debt i have incurred from my studies (which will be over£40,000 even on the current system as i study in london) will be overshadowed by my eventual salary and so financially i am still better off.

    However many people go into professions which don’t have such a high salary, most graduates will by the time the new threshold comes into place probably exceed that level but many by only a little and they will begin to ask themselves what have they really gained from going to university. Neither of my parents went to university however their wage exceeds the new threshold and people from similar situations might well ask, why should i go to university and incur life long tax deductions from debt when i could just go into the family business or they may find that at least their choice of course is influenced by financial matter.

    Those people who are as now privileged enough to have upfront funding from their parents and so reduced debt burdens will not face such deterrents and will be able to pick and choose the subjects they wish to study. It cannot be right that there is one system for those from wealthier backgrounds and another for those from poorer backgrounds, peoples choice of university should be down to their personal preference, finance should have no bearing on it.

    This as such is why i reject your claim that just because you do not have to pay fees up front you can set fees at whatever level you like and still call them affordable.

  28. Nick

    Hi Labour trolls! Funny how you never criticise your party’s introduction of tuition fees in 1998 – after having promised not to do so of course – and Labour’s further imposition of top-up fees after the 2005 GE after having promised IN YOUR MANIFESTO that you wouldn’t. Anything BluLabour might say on tuition fees now is therefore simply political posturing designed to garner student votes. You had your chance to maintain the fairest system – that of covering the cost of tuition from general taxation but as usual, went for the right wing option. Twice. Now you attack the hapless LDs for ‘breaking a manifesto promise’ when they don’t even govern alone. You had a massive majority back in 2005 and broke your promise happily. What’s your excuse? You don’t need a debate about becoming BluLabour – you ARE BluLabour. Hypocrites.

  29. Ed's Talking Balls

    ‘do everything to make sure young people and their parents also understand the facts and are not misled.’

    That part of what Hughes said struck me. Everyone is focussing on headline figures etc and, clearly, that is crucial, but whether you are asking someone to part with £9k, £27k or nothing at all, it is vital not only that people understand how, when and how much they must pay, but also what they are getting for their money.

    I think it is nothing short of a scandal that people are being told that a degree is the be-all-and-end-all. Utter rubbish. If someone is going to spend (potentially) £20k+ on an Arts degree from the University of Bedfordshire, they should be told how employers will regard that qualification.

  30. 13eastie

    @19, Leon

    If people are not being deceived, I’d like very much to know how the likes of “Jen” (who has also posted above) came to the truly bizarre conclusion that she would need to sell her home before her daughter went to university in order to pay the tuition fees.

    Just the other day, on LFF Jen wrote:

    “I did try to sell the house last year to try and raise the money for the tripled fees faced by my daughter …”

    http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/06/unshocking-poll-reveals-teenagers-put-off-by-gbp9000-a-year-tuition-fees/#comments (post #10).

    We should assume that:

    a) Jen is not stupid
    b) Posters such as Jen are: genuine; trying to get on in the real world; not trapped in some sort of spite-filled left-wing bubble

    If she has not been misled, how do you suppose she arrived at her desperate conclusion?

    @21, Elijah

    I know from personal experience that reading medicine can be a monstrous undertaking financially; the best of luck.

    I think you need to look at things from a broader perspective.

    The proposed scheme will allow graduates on low incomes to repay zero. Their tuition will be paid for by other tax-payers (some of whom will be non-graduates on low incomes). This is not unaffordable for the student.

    People who earn more will have to pay a contribution towards the advantageous eduction from which they are benefitting. If not them, then who?

    Some people will look at the numbers and conclude that the cost of a particular degree course is not justified by the benefits. In many cases, this assessment will be correct. If the student himself does not think his course is worth the £27k price tag, how can he possibly make a case that someone else should stump up?

    Many degrees are truly worthless. I say this as an employer who has binned countless CV’s over the years from useless, dull applicants who think that the social science degree at a they studied (at a “university” that also offers certificates in hairdressing) on the back of D’s and E’s in “vocational” A-levels makes them in some way more attractive than the 19-year-old who can explain how he saved his boss some money last week.

    If such a bare-bones analysis encourages students to choose engineering over meeja-studies I don’t think we should be overly concerned.

    Medics often have to make a similar decision about intercalating. Is it an indulgence? Will it confer an advantage? Who should pay?

    And there is certainly nothing wrong with choosing not to go to university. In almost every industry you will find people who have succeeded on their wits alone. This is something we should celebrate, lest we become even more dogmatic about “qualifications” that have little intrinsic value (and which are, in any case, very frequently the subject of falsification).

    There is nothing you will learn from a distance-learning MBA that you couldn’t work out running your own business for a couple of months.

    What is most important is that young people make correctly informed choices on a range of options that are not limited by party-political propaganda. That so few people on LFF can bring themselves to agree with this point speaks volumes.

  31. Elijah


    Sorry i feel like a bit of a troll replying to your post but i feel you have completely missed my point.

    I am glad you acknowledge the point that these fees will have an impact on peoples decisions whether or not to go to university or what course they should take, that i supposed is pretty much a given. My point was however that this being the case, the people who will be put in this situation are those people who’s parents cannot afford to fund them and it will have little bearing on the choices of those people who’s parents are already funding them debt free. Are you seriously saying that certain subjects such as the arts should be the sole domain of the privileged few and that poorer student should not have as much of a decision on their university choice?

    I would also like to take issue with your stance on worthless degrees, university is an experience that isn’t sole about your C.V. it is an experience that broadens you as a person and that is always useful. We may well have skills shortages in certain areas and a surplus in areas but i don’t think that is something that should be solved by forcing people into degrees by prohibitively high fees. Further to that society in general would be far less diverse and cultured if we all went into academic high earning careers.

    As for people paying nothing, i really would like to see the figures on how many graduates do actually go on to earn less than this threshold and how many of them stay below that threshold for their whole life, because i imagine it is a very small amount. I do agree that we should have a system whereby the ideals which you are proposing occur, however this seems to be a very cack handed way of approaching that. The other thing to note is that as far as i understand it, the figure of £21,000 is not £21,000 in todays money which will then be adjusted for inflation and such but it is £21,000 in 4 years when the first lot of people starting on this system graduate and so is actually not worth as much as it sounds.

  32. Leon Wolfson

    13eastie – Because selling your house is entirely rational. The commercial rates being charged on student loans mean downsizing your house when the kids move out to go to University, and paying the University fees with it, is a VERY reasonable response. You have fewer people living in the house, and can use your equity to avoid your kid paying again and again through much of their working life!

    I understand you have no problem with crushing poorer people with debt, but they’re not the sheep you’re looking for, they understand the consequences of these reforms *all too well*. The spite is yours, and only your side’s.

    Very very few british university degrees are, afaik, worth the 27k, when there are good degrees in other EU countries, taught in English, which are FAR cheaper. It’s *your* propaganda which is saying that they are, and confusing the issue.

    Graduation rates are VERY clearly linked to a country’s economic success, and we’re going to see our top talent go elsewhere, and EU graduates take the increasing number of graduate-only jobs here. This is the Tory plan, nothing else.

    (Students should be paying no more than 1k, at best, with living grants as well and expanded participation. It’s called investing in the future, which the Tories are in denial about, again.)

  33. 13eastie

    @25 Elijah,

    Nothing troll-like about your response.

    There will be plenty of people who will repay little of their loan fees. Graduates who quickly become parents and make the choice not to go back to work, for instance.

    I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your idealistic talk about university being an “experience” does not pass muster. As a tax-payer, I am not in the business of providing free “experiences”. You can be fairly sure teenaged tax-payers working in Helmand would not put it so politely. If school-leavers want a three-year-long “Red Letter Day”, they can pay for it themselves. I have no idea how you can suppose loans should be taken out by the govt in my little girl’s name to spare others from paying their way.

    @26 Leon,

    Indebting the unborn is not investing in the future. It is investing (for want of a better word) in the past.

  34. Leon Wolfson

    Typical Tory move, since the Boys Who Matter will still get to go to University from their private schools, you don’t care about the rest.

    Debt taken on to expand the economy, causing a strong net positive effect, should be seriously considered, not dismissed with a wave of a hand because it doesn’t benefit the upper classes.

    Again, University graduate percentages VERY clearly map, historically, to economic success of the countries hosting them. This is not coincidence.

  35. John Smith

    I am a Liberal, a former Lib Dem Councillor and great supporter of Simon Hughes as I generally respect his views. But the Student Loans issue Simon will have to admit if he is truly being honest with himself has been a deal clincher for the Lib Dems.This issue should go to the very core, and soul of being a Lib Dem and they should all ask themselves the current Student Loan policy is a bad one, and could cause a genuine split amongst Liberal (not just Economic Liberal thinkers)
    The Student Loan issue is a deal breaker because it encapusalates what type of society do we in Britain want to live in. Yes we must recognise that we are in Global Meltdown for public finances, and economic recovery, and competitiveness have got to be addressed country by country. But the British Public need to know the truth about how quickly our public finances need to be turned round.Is it 5 years, or 6 years or even 10years as this makes a big difference to Govet thinking. We cannot have the Global Money men especially the Credit Reference Agencies making all these decisions for us and overide the sovereignty and right of Self Determination of individual nations on all economic decisions.
    Having acknowledged this economic context neither can our decisions about the future of our Higher Education be determined by those who currently ideologically (not intellectually) despise Higher Education, and especially its funding. Libertarians, and Working Class Tories who have no intention of going into Higher Education don’t have the answers either.
    In the cold light of day we must recognise that Higher Education now in the future is going to need to satisfy a wide array of needs. Yes one of them is about the immature 18 year old needing the time and space to grow up (the University experience despised by some in your comments. But lets remember these 18 years old are paying for that experience with debt, and for some they need that time to grow otherwise they will not be ready for some employers to employ.
    Higher Education should also be for the future captains of industry,budding entrepreneurs, and the Self Employed who could derive some economic benefit from further educational study. Many of these students could well be from Working Class backgrounds. In this area i feel our Higher Education system is badly lacking in comparison to other countries.
    But for the Health and economic prosperity of our nation Higher Education also has to be for the future generations of artists, comics, scholars, and thinkers.
    Access to Higher Education must continually be about assessing the “quality” of courses and being able to pay back the cost of these course at the time and choosing of the students not the banks, or Government. That is where the Lib Dems in particular and the Govt in general have failed , and continue to fail our students if we are to continue with Student Loans.

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