bursaries

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…