Universities Minister Davis Willets trumpets a ‘necessary and progressive way forward for our higher education system’ whilst his Opposition counterpart Gareth Thomas sees a ‘tragedy for a whole generation of young people’. For a would-be student charged with making a potentially life-changing decision about his or her future, the changes to the system of university tuition fees and funding is yet another weighty issue. A hugely unsettling one too, with hundreds of thousands of graduates failing to find work after completing courses which, one might think, were already quite expensive enough. In increasing the burden upon graduates, where does responsibility lie – with universities or with the Government? Is the new system necessarily disadvantageous?
Student Fees – the Mechanics of Debt and Repayment
The current system charges UK students £3,290 per year and this works out as £9,870 over the course of a typical three-year undergraduate degree. The incoming system allows universities to charge £9,000 per year, resulting in a total cost of £27,000 for a comparable course. Currently, students can borrow the funds from the Student Loans Company then begin repaying in the April after graduating only if they earn £15,000 or more. The repayment is around 9% of earnings above this figure. The new system has a higher income figure of £21,000 meaning that university leavers will only repay if they find employment in a post more suited to their educational status. So, although a new student faces the prospect of owing £17,130 more than a student of yesteryear the burden of debt repayment is alleviated somewhat by the raising of this income level. It’s not as simple as that, however, there are still questions over how this large debt will affect university leavers when they look at credit for subsequent loans, mortgages and other finance deals.
The increase in fees sparked protests nationwide from students and the National Union of Students.
The NUS naturally opposes the new measures, favouring a graduate tax as a less deterring, more progressive option.
The Reasons Behind the Fees Increase
Until recently the subsidising, by central government, of the cost of a student’s higher education, benefited from a remarkable degree of political consensus.. Since the spending review of 2010 however, which made huge cuts to this subsidy, institutions have had little choice but raise fees in order to make up for the shortfall. In spite of somewhat disingenuous rhetoric from the Government which stressed £9,000 to be a guideline maximum figure (£6,000 being more appropriate), few heads were turned in surprise at the subsequent stampede by University Heads to peg their fees at the utmost limit. Universities have responded to the charge of avarice by pointing out that their product is essentially high-value and exclusive, one whose brand ‘cachet’ is harmed by a price-led approach to marketing. Licence henceforth, for Oxbridge to ramp fees to the max, and for aspirational redbrick campuses to follow suit.
University Fees Facebook Poll December 2011
A Facebook poll conducted by the Brighton School of Business and Management this month has so far received over 800 replies regarding feelings concerning the university fee increases.
Thus far, 21% have reported that they will be put off going to university in the UK, suggesting a diminution of key foreign earnings from UK institutions Fees for foreign students aren’t actually affected by the Government\’s restructuring of domestic tuition fees. Nevertheless, the publicity and the negative impression caused may mean foreign students begin to seek out alternatives. Similarly, as young British people also begin to examine alternatives on the continent and beyond, worries of a flight of talent from the UK would seem well-founded.
The Government’s stated aim of encouraging all young people to aim for university would seem to be belied by its draconian spending cuts within the sector. It’s hard to see how their expectation that 50% will enter higher education will be advanced by £27k deterrent they have engendered. If more people are graduating then the intrinsic value of the qualification cannot help but be reduced, yet it is also vastly more expensive to obtain.
Is there an alternative?
Colleges offering online courses report a massive increase both in enquiries and in uptake of their distance learning options. The great flexibility and convenience of this type of learning has seldom been so enticing. Online learning environments support instant exchange of coursework and allow tutors to offer constant and attentive guidance.
The cost of such a course used to be similar to the (heavily-subsidised) conventional degree, but the withdrawal of that subsidy has opened up a significant gulf. The Brighton School of Business and Management charges £2,695 per year (plus £213.12 Edexcel Registration Fee), a saving of over £7,000 when compared with a full-priced degree.
Will universities lose out?
The future for the conventional higher education sector is fraught with uncertainty. The expectation of debt, the denuded employment opportunities for graduates and what is by many as perceived as blatant profiteering by universities undoubtedly makes online study a more attractive proposition than ever before. 11% of poll respondents have certainly reached this conclusion. 7% say the lower cost of studying online makes them preferable to campus-based study. As a graduate who got in under the wire before the changes kicked in, I feel sorry for current students burdened by the decision of whether or not to go to university.
5% of respondents share this sentiment, and 18% support student protest against the fees increase. Nevertheless, 6% will still go to university despite agreeing to greater accompanying worries. According to a Guardian report there has been a 15% decrease in university applications this year The Guardian has reported a 15% reduction in university applicants this year but this is largely cancelled out by the 11% increase the year before – presumably explainable by students attempting to beat the deadline. It’s difficult to say whether the overall drop of 4% can be put down to the increase, or to other factors. The decision taken by a number of universities in November to slightly reduce their fees may have resulted from criticism from OFFA (Office of Fair Access) the independent body charged with ensuring an equitable demographic spread among the university intake. Criticism from OFFA (Office of Fair Access) the body responsible for ensuring academic ability is the prime determinant driving admissions, may have contributed to the decision some universities took in November to slightly lower fees.
A report in The Guardian quotes Sir Martin Harris, the director of OFFA as still being upset about the current imbalance between students from advantaged to disadvantaged backgrounds: ‘12.6% of Cambridge students in 2009/10 came from homes where the annual income is less than £25,000’. In what appears to be a case of ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted’, the government is intending to pass legislation to give OFFA the power to fine universities that make insufficient progress in improving access, and even the right to demand a reduction in fees.’ Whatever happens in the years to come, it is the economy and the education of the UK that are at stake.
The Brighton School of Business and Management provides a comprehensive range of online courses to students based in the UK and around the world. Courses cover professional and management subjects from Business HNDs to Online Marketing Diplomas.