Equity in the Higher Fees Era: a case study of English universities

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In 2012, the English Higher Education system witnessed one of the biggest hikes in the cost of university participation seen in the sector, with the annual fee for most undergraduate degree programme raised to a new limit of £9,000. Accompanying this rise in ‘headline’ fees was a series of changes to the repayment mechanism that allowed the move to be framed in progressive terms by policymakers and other advocates. A small dip in applications followed, but the UK’s widening participation agenda seemed not to be bruised by the hike, with the proportion of students from less advantaged backgrounds applying to higher education institutions (including higher prestige universities) remaining constant. This paper examines the messages that were communicated alongside the 2012 fees rise, its aim being to help shed light on how public discourses about participation in the higher fees era are framed. It is argued that the greater overall expense for most students in terms of lifetime repayments was partially obscured in favour of a narrative that emphasised the short-term benefits for middle-earning graduates and long-term concessions for lower-earning graduates. Using the contemporary English model as a case study, the wider implications for quality and, more particularly, equity of a less regulated, more market-driven higher education system are explored. Attention is also paid to the impact on selection procedures and on broader questions about the extent to which university is (and is perceived as) a public or private good.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)61-76
Number of pages15
JournalREDU Revista
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014


  • Higher fees, English universities, Marketization, Widening participation, Public discourse.


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