Why fees don’t act as a deterrent to uni

Would higher tuition fees put you off university?  A study by the University of Leicester suggests demand for places will be strong even if fees went up by triple their current amount.

730 university applicants were asked if they would be put off by higher fees.  The majority said they would still apply.  Slightly more than 10% would be put off by a £10,000 yearly fee.

photo by subcircle

Prospective students don't feel locked out over fees (photo by subcircle)

This is surprisingly low in contrast to the recent NUS & HSBC survey that asked a similar question to current university students.  Asked if they would have been deterred by higher fees, a whopping 78% said they would have been put off by fees of £10,000. [Click for full survey report in Word (doc) format]

So why the difference?  The NUS survey asked students already in HE.  Those students are more than aware of the fees burden, so it’s clear they would be alarmed by an even higher cost.

The Leicester study went the opposite way and asked sixth formers; those not yet in the higher education system.  With so many people applying to universities, I’m sure most students don’t feel they have much choice but to accept whatever price they have to pay.

At a time when university is considered the only route to career success by many, the focus on applying won’t rest on fees.  Suggest everyone had to pay £50,000 a year under these circumstances and I doubt even then you’d have a majority turning away from uni.

Bursaries and scholarships are available to cover some, if not all, costs.  These schemes would have to grow if fees were to rise.  Sadly, students most in need of this financial assistance are not sufficiently aware of such schemes.

The Office for Fair Access (Offa) reports that bursaries are not attracting poorer students.  The “chaotic patchwork” of bursaries are not doing the job of supporting students most in need.  Those at a financial disadvantage are far more likely to attend a university with lower bursaries.  The links are clearly not joining up.

Nik Darlington recently complained that he found the NUS/HSBC survey to be unrealistic.  He argued that by asking current or former students about fees, “This will not give you a realistic market opinion – these respondents are biased having already paid less than half of that amount for their current or former studies.  You have to be putting the question to future students for satisfactory realism”.

While the Leicester survey did put the question to future students, I don’t believe that survey can paint a full picture either.  The answers aren’t surprising.  So long as prospective students deem university to be the usual route forward after school, most students won’t appear to be put off by fees.

Darlington says Leicester have offered “vastly more robust research“.  Nevertheless, the results may be missing the wider point.  Put both sets of answers together to see why.  Before university, any fee is just a price that needs paying.  During university, that fee doesn’t seem quite so obligatory.  The change of opinion is important.

And how about after graduation?  Are current fees worthwhile and, if so, would higher fees still be acceptable?  I am skeptical about the £100,000 graduate premium in these changing times.  Would a graduate-only survey highlight resentment over fees even at their current levels?

How important is opinion in these matters anyway?  It seems that views vary, even amongst students.  And as Ferdinand von Prondzynski suggests, “the electoral impact of fees may be much less predictable than one might think”.

The future is going to be tough, whatever happens.  We have an ever increasing number of questions and very few answers.  Even if the Browne Review recommends higher fees, as is expected, the coalition government have to work a reasonable solution.  Under the circumstances, finding that solution will prove difficult.

And that last sentence is a contender for understatement of the year…


  1. The fact of the matter is that someone always has to pay for university education, in the past it has been the government, but now increasingly it is the individual. In my opinion Labour made a huge mistake by pushing for more people in higher education beacuse it has just made the competition for jobs so much harder. A degree shouldnt be a required factor in getting a job, it should be based upon personal experience and attributes.

  2. @Char, it’s a messy situation right now. I’m concerned the picture’s going to get worse before it gets better.

    @Beth, I agree that too many jobs now demand a degree when there was no such requirement in the past. Pushing 50% or any specific figure into higher education is irrelevant. The number doesn’t matter. What matters is ensuring that each individual who can benefit from HE is given the opportunity to move in that direction.

    While uni continues to be seen as the only real option after school, the results will remain skewed and jobs will state a degree as a requirement because there’s an abundance of graduates.

  3. Martin, while i agree that everyone is entitled to have the opportunity to go into higher education, I would like to clarify that I do not agree that all of the people taking degrees today are taking them in worthwhile subjects! For example media studies (yes I know it’s a cliché!) To many subjects which should be learnt whilst on the job or on vocational courses how now been pushed into the degree format. These people are paying the same fees as someone doing mathematics, history or other more traditional subjects, essentially for a “worthless” degree.

  4. Sorry Beth, your waving a red rag at my bull! In what way is media studies a ‘worthless’ degree?

    Just to clarify, Media Studies isn’t a vocational subject. Only 1 in 5 of it’s graduates take up work in the media and creative industries. It is, when done properly, a broad arts based discipline.

    And I’d be interest to know in what way you think studying the media might be considered worthless in a world where the systems of communication play a critical role in shaping our political systems, forms of community and identity?

    But as you say, your thinking on this is clichéd. Worse it’s just pretty ignorant.

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