free tuition
Is a years' free tuition enough to help first-generation university students? Source: Shutterstock

Education plays a crucial role in the economic and social progress of a nation. With so much at stake, it becomes essential for governments to ensure fair access to education for all citizens.

With that in mind, a UK think-tank is calling for the UK government to introduce a year’s free tuition – or “First-in-Family Allowance” – for students who are the first in their family to go to university.

This is among the Higher Education Policy Institute’s (HEPI) six ambitious recommendations to ensure universities meet the priorities of their communities and help the government bridge social, economic and regional divides. 

Free tuition to reduce graduate debt

free tuition

The allowance would cover the first year tuition fees of students’ undergraduate degree at university. Source: Shutterstock

In their report, Making Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain, released on Feb 27, they note that the global labour market increasingly demands a degree as a necessary prerequisite for higher-skilled jobs, but that the level of parental education is a major influence on educational progression.

This is because parents are often more concerned about tuition fees and graduate debt than the prospective students. 

Hence, HEPI notes that it is essential to try to overcome those apprehensions and anxieties by targeting first-in-family students through a combination of better information and financial incentives. 

“By making the first year of post-18 study free for any student who is among the first generation of their family (and applying this to first born children and their siblings), we are signalling the importance of overcoming this barrier to educational attainment,” said authors.

Realistically, not all students will continue with their studies upon completing their first year and may withdraw for various reasons.  

With that in mind, HEPI recommends that the system be designed to be more flexible, and to provide these students with a base-level qualification with the option of “topping-up” and returning to study later in life. 

“In this respect, the UK should follow the lead of countries such as New Zealand and Australia by commissioning a review of the qualification regulatory regime with a view to overcoming barriers to micro-credentials more generally,” it said.

“This could also build on the Augar review’s recommendations in support of interim qualifications and more flexible, lifelong learning approaches.”

Vice-Chancellor Sheffieldof  Hallam University and co-author of the report Professor Sir Chris Husbands said: “It will be impossible for the sector to fulfil the vision of higher education as a force for social good without a significant reshaping of funding, responsibilities and incentives. 

“We offer some starting ideas here, but this realignment is essential if higher education is to help the nation grapple with the deep challenges it faces.”

Meanwhile, Director of Policy and Advocacy at HEPI Rachel Hewitt said: “Recent years have shown some universities are not as closely attuned to their local communities as they thought they were.

“At the same time, they have been subjected to unprecedented levels of policy change by [the] government, which has led to challenging competing priorities. This report provides a road map for universities to get back in touch with the places where they are based.”

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