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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Completed Projects

The impact of a market in tuition fees on fair access to more prestigious universities and subjects

A research project of the Department of Sociology.


From 2012, tuition fees in English universities are set to increase from a flat rate of £3,290 to £9,000 a year in most institutions. In anticipation of these impending changes to the tuition fees regime, much attention has focused on the hypothesis that a rapid and substantial increase in tuition fees such as this is likely to deter members of historically underrepresented social groups from participating in higher education altogether. A less commonly articulated hypothesis, but one that is equally important, is that higher and ultimately more variable tuition fees from 2012 onwards may well deter members of historically under-represented social groups from accessing more prestigious universities and subjects in particular.


The proposed study will investigate the impact of the creation of a market in university tuition fees on fair access to more prestigious universities and degree subjects in the UK.

In particular, the study will explore whether higher and variable fees serve to increase already sizeable inequalities of access to more prestigious universities and subjects between those from more and less advantaged social class origins, ethnic groups and school backgrounds.


The proposed study will involve quantitative analysis of university applications and admissions data provided by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).


See below for information about how the emerging findings of this study will be disseminated.


The proposed study will generate four main kinds of research output.

First, presentation of the emerging findings of the study at several key academic conferences, specifically the annual conferences of the British Sociological Association and the British Educational Research Association.

Secondly, two articles – one on access to more prestigious universities and a second on access to more prestigious subjects – to be submitted for publication in peer reviewed journals.

Thirdly, preparation of a non-technical research report to be shared with policy makers in government and the higher education sector, including the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), the Office for Fair Access.


From the Department of Sociology