Richer cities send more students to university. Scrapping tuition fees is unlikely to change this

A 2015 march against tuition fees. Image: Getty.

Should a university education be free to all? Or should graduates pay for the benefits of their education? Another election, another chance to debate university tuition fees.

Both Labour and the Green Party have vowed to abolish fees completely and reinstate maintenance if elected on the 8 June. Currently students in poorer cities are less likely to attend university – but would scrapping fees change this?

Using Higher Education data  we can see the likelihood of young people in each city choosing to study for a degree. There is a lot of variation, as the map below shows.

Click to expand.

Young people in Cambridge and London are most likely to go to university, with 48 per cent and 42 per cent respectively of their 18 year olds choosing to study for a degree. By contrast, only 19 per cent of Hull’s 18 year olds went to university. Similarly low participation levels were found in Barnsley (22 per cent).

The richer a city, the more likely young people will attend university. A clear pattern emerges from the data, showing a positive relationship between average earnings of city workers and university participation.

The perception, based on this picture, is that university fees are a barrier for people from lower income backgrounds. So abolishing fees, a seemingly progressive policy, should in theory increase university attendance of lower income groups.

But the evidence isn’t clear about the impact of fees on students from poorer backgrounds. There are a couple of indications that scrapping them is unlikely to close the participation gap.

The last tuition fee rise didn’t lead to lower participation of poorer students. At a national level (city data is only available to 2011). the 2012 increase in fees slowed the annual increase in university applications. But crucially, there was no widening of inequalities as a result. Research by UCAS showed that “differences by background reduced” from 2011 to 2013: this suggests fees did not deter poorer students as was expected. That said, it’s not yet clear what the impact of the 2015 removal of maintenance grants has been.

Research from the IFS suggests scrapping fees would be regressive, benefiting medium and high-earning graduates. This is, because student loan repayments are linked to earnings, it is high-earning graduates who pay back the largest amount of their loans. Removing tuition fees and offering maintenance grants would mostly benefit them, as poorer graduates repay much less in the current system.

The barriers to access are complex, and it isn’t clear whether abolishing tuition fees will do much to close the gap in university attendance. Combating differences in education attainment from an early age, improving career guidance and mentoring schemes all have a role to play in supporting people from poorer backgrounds to go to university.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.


Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.

At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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