Since 1997, the policy changes encompassing higher education in England have been frequent and substantial.
In the buildup to 1997, the demand for higher education had been exponentially increasing. Between 1961 and 1986, there was an increase of 387,000 students studying at university. In the decade following 1986, student numbers grew by ~125%. Mounting financial pressures meant that governments and local authorities could no longer support the financial burden of offering free tuition. Instead, tuitions fees were introduced, and maintenance grants – which had systematically been eroded in the years leading up to 1997 – were in line for further changes.
What originally started as a £1,000 upfront fee for education, tuition fees transformed in the years that followed to income-contingent loan repayment schemes. Currently, tuition fees for home-grown students studying in England are £9,250 per year. In the most recent bout of policy changes, maintenance grants (with a maximum value of £3,387) for students with parental income of £25,000 or less was abolished. In its place, a maintenance loan system based on a commensurate amount was introduced.
Around the time of 1997, many experts felt that an introduction of tuition fees would unfairly benefit those from wealthier households and that there would be an overall decline in demand for university places.
What unfolded was the opposite of this. From 1985, where full-time student numbers were ~ 600,000, a substantial increase has since been realised. In 1998, full time student numbers were ~ 1,600,000. In 2003, they were ~ 1,700,000 and in 2012, they were ~ 1,900,000. The latest figures covered in this paper (for the academic year 2019-2020), higher education student enrolments had reached a new record with 2,076,465 enrolments. While full-time students numbers have increased, part-time student numbers have decreased, partly due to the typical part-time student profile and the income-contingent loan repayment scheme.
This same scheme has benefited full-time student numbers who tend to be younger and not in full time, high salaried employment. Maintenance grants have also helped increase enrolments as it provides students with much-needed liquid capital at the start of their studies.
Over the period of time covered in this paper, equity has improved. Prior to 1997, there was a large discrepancy between enrolment and attainment between high and low-end economic households. This gap has since decreased and, while still significant, does show that introducing tuition fees and making changes to maintenance loans has not adversely affected the lower-income households as first feared.
Elsewhere, BAME groups now have greater representation than ever before after ten years of almost total upward trends in these groups.