Magazine article Times Higher Education

Failing System, Broken Dreams

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Failing System, Broken Dreams

Article excerpt

University costs embed inequality and exact a painful toll on individuals, Sorana Vieru says

Student Lives in Crisis: Deepening Inequality in Times of Austerity

By Lorenza Antonucci

Policy, 224pp, £17.99

ISBN 9781447318248

Published 21 September 2016

In the past year, the government has abolished student maintenance grants and NHS bursaries for student nurses, cut the Disabled Students' Allowance, changed loan repayment terms so that graduates start paying back more, sooner, and is about to lift the cap on tuition fees in England.

As students' rights campaigners have been saying for some time, not everyone has a privileged and smooth passage through university, and now, with Student Lives in Crisis, an academic is saying it, too.

Lorenza Antonucci here examines how mass systems of higher education in countries where the welfare state has dwindled serve to shape inequality. University is typically a phase of semi-dependence, as students shift from reliance on family to independent life, floating between self-generated means of support via work and what they receive from families or the state. As this valuable study shows, this transition can entrench, rather than reduce, social inequalities.

This book could easily have been titled "Why the Higher Education White Paper Is Wrong", as the government's reform agenda has little to do with improving social mobility or making universities truly accessible. Antonucci's study highlights the flaw in the liberal dream that simply expanding student numbers can address social inequality. She highlights policymakers' obsession about "access through the door" and "graduate destinations" while ignoring attainment, success, housing and employment, and probes the negative impact of an individualised approach to funding higher education, in which young people are increasingly expected to go to university but must meet the rising costs themselves.

What is new about this study, unlike so many analyses of student debt, is its deep dive into the lived experiences of individual young people in higher education, and their struggles, worries, hopes and dreams. This book doesn't merely talk about inequality - it shows how it works in practice. Over nine chapters, Antonucci looks closely at 84 students from a range of socio-economic backgrounds from Sweden, Italy and England, three countries with quite different welfare state models. Findings from surveys and interviews are analysed via the prism of various sources of funding for degrees, or "welfare mixes": family support, state support (through grants and loans) and earnings from work while studying.

In Sweden - Antonucci's example of a high level of state intervention - there are no tuition fees, and a generous, non-means-tested, universal system of student support is in place. In Italy, representing minimal public intervention, there are low fees and a limited grant system, with only a small minority of eligible students receiving funds. England, the "investor model", has high fees and a mix of universal and means-tested loans and grants.

Stopping frequently to summarise and reinforce, Antonucci's analysis of the English sector is refreshing, moving away from a focus on mission groups and types of institutions - divisions that too often hinder progressive change, as every institution watches what its neighbour does. (Nothing amused me more than hearing the journalist Nick Robinson refer to "the so-called Russell Group" on telly recently, as if they were Islamic State.)

Antonucci argues that as record numbers enter university, the graduate premium has waned, so existing privilege and the reconfiguration of "welfare mixes" across Europe are the most significant factors in the rise in inequality among this generation. She makes a case for universal student support, because an assessment of family income doesn't account for debt and thus does not reflect the availability of support. …

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