Oxford University principal and writer Will Hutton is set to chair a new independent commission into the effect of rising tuition fees upon admissions.
The commission will produce nine reports over the next three years in to how the trebling of the cap on tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 has affected the nature of applications and its long-term impact on life for students, even after they leave university.
The report will focus particularly on the fee changes’ impact on those from low to middle income backgrounds.
The announcement comes in the wake of UCAS’s release of new figures this week which show university applications to have dipped by 8.7 percent this year.
UCAS claim that the fall in applicants can be explained by a demographic dip in the number of 18 year-olds in 2012-2013, while Universities Minister David Willetts maintains that “applications from people from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds remain strong, with only a 0.2 percent decrease.”
These figures are disputed by Labour Shadow Minister for Higher Education Shabana Mahmood, who said: “It is clear the drastic increase in fees and the debt burden is putting people of all ages off going to university.”
Writing in The Guardian, Hutton said: “Society needs to know whether such an unprecedentedly large increase over just 12 months is having any bad or unexpected consequences.”
“With the wholehearted collaboration of UCAS, who will give us access to their data, we aim to give the most impartial and comprehensive account of how fees are working out in practice.”
The committee is backed and organised by the educational charity the Sutton Trust. Alongside Hutton it will include UCL and LSE academic Professor Stephen Machin, Times journalist Libby Purves, and the Trust’s chairman and founder, the businessman and philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl.
A representative of the Department for Business, Universities and Skills said: “We look forward to working with all interested parties as our reforms take effect.
“No-one should be put off going to university for financial reasons. All eligible new students will not have to pay tuition charges upfront, there will be more financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and everyone will make lower monthly loan repayments than they do under the current system once they are in well paid work.”
Recent figures from UCAS show that overall university applications in England are down 9.9 percent on last year.
A study by the student accommodation organisation Unite also showed that students were becoming more “savvy” about their university choices.
Hutton summed up the objectives of the commission by saying: “Some 200,000 young people will graduate each year with average debts of £45,000 – the most personally expensive system of university funding in the world by a country mile. It seems hard to believe there will not be some impact on the character of England’s student population.”
OUSU Access and Academic Affairs VP Hannah Cusworth commented: “I welcome the setting up of this commission if it can provide us with a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the rise of tuition fees. I think we can all be proud that Oxford has the most generous package of financial support and with a strong evidence base we can make sure we target that support in the best way.”
“I am slightly confused about the composition of the commission,” she added. “While I highly respect the achievements and intellectual ability of all the panel members, since this commission is about the choices young people are making, I think it’s a mistake not to include anyone under the age of 49…”