Women and poorer students to be hit hardest by tuition fee changes

Elsa Maishman 24 September 2015

A report released today by the Sutton Trust has warned that women and students from the poorest backgrounds will suffer most from the government's planned changes to tuition fee repayment.

The plans laid out by the chancellor George Osborne in the Summer Budget propose that from 2016, the threshold at which graduates begin to repay loans be fixed at £21,000 for five years. This move, still under consultation, would affect those who have taken out loans from 2012 onwards.

The new report, from higher education consultant John Thompson, claims that this change, as well as replacing maintencnce grants with loans, could greatly increase the cost of university. 

According to the report, if the £21,000 freeze did not come into force, the average male who borrowed £36,000 over a three-year degree would repay £34,900 over 30 years, while the average female would repay £26,400. 

However, if the threshhold was frozen the average male would pay back £37,100 (£2,200 more) while a typical female borrower would pay £29,700 (£3,300 more). There has been no analysis of data from graduates who identify as non-binary.

This gender disparity is due to the fact that women tend to earn less, and are more likely to continue repayments for the entirety of the 30 years until loans are written off.

This comes after new research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies at Cambridge and Harvard has documented an average gap of about 23% between male and female annual earnings 10 years after graduation. The median figure for a woman graduate in her early 30s is £19,500, while for a man it is £25,200. 

A female third-year historian expressed concern, saying that ''these plans are yet another example of how the gender pay gap continues to impact women, despite assertions from some circles that it is no longer an issue. In paying more for their university education in the long term, women are being doubly punished.''

The Sutton Trust report also finds that Osbourne's proposed changes will have a harsh impact on low income students, whose average debt could rise to over £50,000.

The report advises that loan terms for current borrowers should not be changed, saying that 'the freezing of loan thresholds will significantly increase the average cost of higher education, particularly for students from low income backgrounds who are currently eligible for maintenance grants.'

The summer budget has previously been criticised by CUSU, with Access Officer Helena Blair calling the scrapping of maintenance grants a ''devastating attack on the aspirations of poorer students”