Leadership & Governance

How Britain Is Trying to Expand Access to Higher Education

Steve Smith, University of Exeter

November 20, 2015

Produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz

Like the United States, Britain is debating ways to improve access to higher education for low-income students. In recent years, British universities have enrolled a growing percentage of poor students, says Steve Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Exeter. He credits part of the success to how government loans to students are structured, with payments contingent on income and loan debt abolished after a specified period (30 years in England, for example). Despite that success, universities and the government have poorly communicated how the system works, says Mr. Smith, who is also chairman of the Board of Trustees at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, a charity that oversees admissions for most British universities

In a video interview, Mr. Smith discusses what American policy makers and colleges can learn from Britain as they look to improve access to higher education for disadvantaged people. 


IAN WILHELM: I'm here today with Sir Steve Smith, the vice chancellor of the University of Exeter. Vice Chancellor, thanks for being here today.

STEVE SMITH: My pleasure.

IAN WILHELM: Like the U.S., the U.K. is debating right now the role of higher education in social mobility, and specifically the role of trying to get more students from low-income backgrounds into university. And I wondered if you could quickly say how this debate is playing out in British higher education right now.

STEVE SMITH: It's an absolutely massive debate in the U.K. because basically your probability of going to university is determined by, above all, your social standing. Your socioeconomic grouping that you're in. And governments — Labor governments, Conservative governments — all decided that this has got to be altered. So they've required universities to spend larger and larger amounts on our reach-funding bursaries and the like.

But the big thing is, by introducing a change to the funding mechanism, they've actually seen larger numbers of students from poor backgrounds go to university. In 2004 only 14 percent of the students in the lowest socioeconomic quintile went to university; last year it was 21.5 percent. So there's been a lot of success. It's been targeting students, informing them, but crucially making the change.

The student loans are wiped out after 30 years. So it's not like credit-card debt. And explaining that to students I think has led to larger numbers from poorer backgrounds going than ever before. It's not equal. It's still 57 percent of kids in the highest quintile go to university compared to 21 percent and a bit from the lowest, but it's better than it was. And those changes in the funding have really caused the result.

IAN WILHELM: One thing you've talked about is the messaging of the change in the funding. That's something that you thought could have used improvement, in terms of explaining why the changes can be beneficial to low-income students, and students generally.

STEVE SMITH: Well, I was president of the Universities UK, which is the body that represents all universities. I was there when we made the change to triple fees, in 2012. It was very controversial. Demonstrations on the streets of London.

One thing we got wrong, and we have to own up to this, is by allowing the language to be about fees and debts, it colored opinions so that people thought these were like credit-card debts, these were real fees that they paid. Whereas in fact, because the debt is forgiven after 30 years, if I offered you to buy a new house on that basis with the mortgage written off after 30 years, you'd grab it. But we allowed the language to be one of fees and debt.

What we've actually got in the U.K. is a 30-year limited graduate tax, which you only pay when you earn more than £21,000 a year. You pay at 9 percent, and after 30 years the debt's gone. Now students still think, and especially students from poor backgrounds think, that it's fees and it's debt, and it's like credit-card debt.

IAN WILHELM: Acknowledging that the two systems between the U.S. and the U.K. are quite different, are there lessons here within this debate in terms of policy or, as you said, within the messaging that U.S. universities, U.S. policy makers could learn from?

STEVE SMITH: The two big lessons — and of course it's a different political context — the minor lesson is not to use language that only educated middle-class kids. You've got the social capital to talk about. People understand. Using fees makes people think it's a fee. So language is massively significant.

The other issue, of course, is the U.K., by moving away from payment of debt towards time limited, has actually altered the equation so that because we can say, if you don't pay it back after 30 years, it's written off. It's unlike any other form of debt. Now that's a big political change, but that's the really significant difference between the two countries.

IAN WILHELM: You mentioned one area or one population that is of growing concern for you as well as others in Britain is the concern about the access to education by poor white males. Is it an issue you think is being overlooked, or is it something that has not been discussed as much as you'd like?

STEVE SMITH: It's rising up the agenda, politically and massively. It used to be the case that there were several groups that were underrepresented. But the group now that sticks out is poor white males. In fact, the argument is, by 2018, the gap between boys going to university and girls going to university will be greater than the gap between the richest half and the poorest half of people going to university.

So we joke actually in our governing body, will we have to start offering [INAUDIBLE] to boys to encourage them to go? But there's a real attainment issue, and it runs from 5 all the way through to 18. Boys, especially from poor backgrounds, perform far less well than girls, even girls from poor backgrounds.

IAN WILHELM: Vice chancellor, thanks for being here today.

STEVE SMITH: Pleasure. Thank you very much, indeed.