Many people point to the fall in 2012/13 applications to English universities as evidence that students have been put off applying because of the near trebling of tuition fees. In theory, however, no-one should be put off by this change. Fees will now be deferred and paid back gradually after university, once a graduate is earning a good wage. And there are generous maintenance loans and grants on offer, meaning everyone, regardless of background, should be able to afford upfront to go to university.
But how many potential students actually understand this new payment structure? So far there is little evidence of whether young people making important decisions about university actually understand how much it costs, how and when they have to pay, and crucially, whether the financial benefits outweigh the costs.
A team of researchers at the LSE, led by Professor Sandra McNally, undertook a study aiming to find out what school pupils know about the costs and benefits of going to university and the potential impact on their knowledge and aspirations of an 'information campaign'. Our study took place in the 2010-11 academic year with 54 participating London schools. In each school, we surveyed all year 10 pupils (14-15 year olds) – around 12,000 took part in total.
An initial survey questioned pupils about their knowledge of the costs and benefits of higher education, after which some schools were given an information package, including access to a website, leaflets, a video and a presentation about staying in education. Other schools were given the package only eight to 12 weeks later, after all participants had completed a second survey. Both surveys took place at the time when the increase in tuition fees was announced. Results therefore reflect not only the impact of the information campaign but also the short-term impact of media reporting of the fee increase.
The survey revealed large gaps in pupil knowledge about the costs and benefits of higher education. For example, less than half of pupils knew that fees are paid after university, and once they have a job, while fewer than half regarded student loans as a "cheaper/better way to borrow money than other types of borrowing". Furthermore, around a quarter of pupils held the view that going to university was "too expensive".
Media reporting around the time of the fees hike improved pupils' knowledge of how much university would cost but also increased the negative perceptions of affordability, with a significant increase in the proportion who thought university was too expensive. This increase was greater among pupils from comprehensive schools compared with those from independent schools.
Results also suggested that misperceptions over the costs and impact of the fee increase can be easily corrected with an information campaign. Pupil attitudes changed considerably in response to the information package, which stressed the availability of grants and how loans can be repaid rather than focusing on the fee increase per se. As well as improving student knowledge about the benefits of higher education – something lacking in the media focus – the campaign significantly reduced negative perceptions of affordability across the board.
Previous research has shown that factors determining whether pupils go on to university are largely set before they finish their compulsory education at the end of Year 11. We should not be waiting until exams have been sat and subject choices made before ensuring that pupils have the correct information on which to base their future decisions. Nor does the fact that careers information classes are not specifically resourced or required by government help create the right incentives for schools to raise their game.
Gill Wyness is an education researcher at LSE and research associate of the liberal think tank CentreForum.