tuition fees

The £9k exception norm

Today’s headlines on tuition fees are promising large rises. I’m about to discuss the fees announcement. But don’t be alarmed by the numbers.

MoneySavingExpert has a guide to understanding the new fees and loans system for 2012/13 and it’s worth checking that rather than worry about the figures in isolation.

The figures sound scary, but the reality is different. Whether you agree with it or not is a different matter.

There are underlying issues that could arise due to the government selling off loans in the future, but hopefully it won’t be something we need to cover. If you do want to read more about the sale of student loans, check out Part 3 of Andrew McGettigan’s report, “False Accounting? Why the government’s Higher Education reforms don’t add up” [PDF]. It’s also worth reading McGettigan’s recent post on finances at his blog, Critical Education.

Now on to the fees announcement.

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) has published details of university fees for 2013/14. The fees are even closer to the £9,000 cap than they already were for 2012/13, when the new fees come into play. FT’s data blog lists the full 2012/13 fees.

After financial support from all areas is taken into consideration, the estimated average fee for 2013/14 is set to be £7,898.

That’s once everything is taken into account. A potential difference of £1,102 between the adjusted average and the absolute maximum fee. Not exactly the suggested ‘market’ that was touted.

A yearly fee above £6,000 was supposed to be the exception. Many HE commentators weren’t convinced. In November 2010, I suggested that we should “expect to see the cap become the price“. It hasn’t taken long.

In March 2011, I acknowledged that finances and access agreements cannot be worked out in any short-term plan:

“It seems that, even without any changes to the proposed fees system in coming years, it’s going to take a couple of runs through the process before we get a true picture of what’s happening.” [Source]

The new fees regime for 2012/13 hasn’t even begun and the next year of fees has been set. Clearing doesn’t start for a couple of weeks, and that’s set to be different to previous years. Salford VC, Martin Hall, says that clearing is “no longer a mopping-up opportunity for those who didn’t get their expected grades to find a spare place”.

This is just the start.

It’s understandable that fees have long been the big talking point surrounding higher education since the changes were announced. Sadly, that’s been to the detriment of other HE discussions. Postgraduates, institutional diversity, student engagement, the loans system and its future, public perceptions and engagement with HE…There is so much to talk about. It’s as if fees talk got in the way of other conversations. Well, unless you were more directly involved or particularly keen on HE policy and wonk-talk!

For applicants, there is still little reason to limit choices based on tuition fees other than the occasional exception. In general, the slight differences are less important than other considerations. The new fees system was billed to give students greater choice. People would vote with their feet and not accept unreasonably high fees as a matter of course.

With fees set so close to the cap, where will those feet tread?

Many considerations are needed when making university choices. It depends on each person and why they wish to attend (including whether or not to attend at all). I’ve got a list of 50 things to think about for uni decisions. It’s not exhaustive, because that’s not possible.

Fees may not be so important in choices right now, but bursaries are still worth researching. Bursaries make an immediate impact, unlike fee waivers, because the money goes directly to the student. Prospective students should make sure they know what bursaries are available to them.

Some institutions may find new reasons to set very different fees once we’re a year or two into the new system. There’s no way to accurately foretell this because there are no direct comparisons. Also, any additional policy changes change the situation once more. And there’s still a lot of room for that to happen.

However, as things currently stand, it’s clear that fees are sitting firmly around that £9k cap. Who’da thunk it?

Make the most of your £9,000 year at university

I’ve argued before that fees themselves don’t act as a deterrent to university, since higher education is seen by many as the only feasible route to career success. There is much more to higher education, but it’s hard to deny that a large number of people take the HE path in the hope of improving future prospects.

The Independent asked students and graduates if they would have paid £9k per year. That question isn’t so important right now, but some of the answers given are definitely worth exploring.

photo by mattwi1s0n
£9k fees? What say you? – photo by mattwi1s0n

Nottingham graduate Luke Martin puts the student experience into perspective:

“The ‘university life’ is a deeply individual one and it’s a shame to imagine it simply as a (very expensive) commodity, when for most it’s an all encompassing and enjoyable lived experience.”

You have a wealth of opportunity at university. It’s easy to imagine that a degree is the most important end product of your study. In reality, many other actions over the years can surpass that seemingly crucial grade.

Qualifications are certainly important, but they’re no replacement for other achievement and personal experience.

Luke Martin adds, “I suspect that I took a lot out of it that can’t be measured in pounds”. While you can’t put a monetary value on everything you do, you should attempt to translate as many of your actions into meaningful examples that others can understand.

Build upon your long-term plan. How far have you looking into the future? You don’t know what’s awaiting you around the corner, but that’s not an excuse to abandon forward planning.

It’s all too easy to see graduation as a million miles away. Even if you think it’s approaching fast, it’s just as easy to think the job search starts when you’ve finished studying. But it doesn’t.

Your search has already started. If you’re at uni to improve your prospects, every minute is potential time to be winning. Some ideas that are quick to start, quick to implement, but require a long time to make a mark:

  • Start a blog: Blogs almost never achieve overnight success. Three posts do not make a must-read blog. A consistent effort, however, can yield results. There is no sure-fire way of reaching a huge audience and/or huge respect, but you’re guaranteed not to reach it if you don’t try at all.
  • Build online network profiles aimed at your chosen career/job route: Twitter, LinkedIn, and the like aren’t overnight success stories (unless you’re Charlie Sheen). Thankfully, you only need short, committed bursts of activity to make a difference over time. But do commit to it, otherwise you’re profile risks going stale.
  • Get working on a career RIGHT NOW: Ask yourself, “What can I do straight away to move closer to a role in X industry?” If you had a free reign to work on whatever project you wanted, what would you choose? If you aren’t already doing that now, what’s stopping you? Take your unexecuted ideas and start bringing them to life.
  • Volunteer: There are plenty opportunities to volunteer. It doesn’t have to be charity work and it needn’t be in a formal job situation. Giving up your time to support a cause and to enhance your own experience will look great ongoing. However, there’s no point in volunteering simply to look good on paper. It doesn’t work. Your aim is to provide value and enthusiasm. You may even build some amazing contacts, memories and future opportunities in the process.
  • Seek out a mentor: We learn from the actions of others from birth. You may already know someone who you respect and could learn a lot from. If you do, why not tell them how you feel they could help you with a bit of guidance. They will likely feel flattered and be delighted to spend some time with you. And the worst they can do is say no!
    If you don’t know anyone personally, Forbes has an 8-step plan to find a mentor and a slideshow with the steps too.

After you graduate, your overall experience is worth more than just the degree. One graduate suggests: “We’re left in a world where a degree is just an expensive, bog-standard qualification.”

While I don’t agree in such harsh tones, it’s true that a degree, in isolation, is no longer enough to secure the employment of your choosing. You must put the legwork in to use your degree and the skills you developed, because the piece of paper isn’t going to make a big noise on your behalf.

An increasing number of graduates find it insanely difficult to secure suitable employment. However, it is no reason to wash your hands of higher education. In a world of ‘quick fixes’ and ‘instant access‘, you’ve still got to play the slow game for some things, frustrating as that may be.

I’ll leave the last words to KCL graduate, Daniel Smith. No matter what the cost, we’re all different and it’s in your own interests to make your experience worthwhile, amazing, and relevant to who you want to be:

“Each student will have a different experience to the next and just because everyone has a degree does not mean there is an equal starting point when looking to start a career after university. In a fundamental sense though, a degree is worth any amount of money, if it’s something you’ve always wanted to aspire to.”

Tuition Fees and the Future

Oxbridge and Imperial want to charge £9,000 in fees from 2012. The highest amount possible.

While we’re well aware of student protests and unhappiness with higher fees, it’s still no surprise that universities are announcing the wish to charge students top whack for tuition.

original photo by RachelH_

original photo by RachelH_

Take away the controversy of higher fees for a moment and focus on what’s happening to see why a varied market in fees is unlikely.

The Browne review wanted to see no price cap in place. A big, scary thought for many future students. But the cap hasn’t been removed; it has merely been raised.

Under current terms, the natural move by universities will be to charge the highest possible amount. This is because they face:

  • A near total removal of public funding for teaching;
  • The unrestricted ability to charge fees of £6,000;
  • A requirement to create an ‘access agreement’ for universities choosing to charge above £6,000, up to a maximum of £9,000;
  • A need for the average tuition fee to be £7,500 in order to simply recoup the losses from the removal of funding.

In turn, this means:

  • Universities need to find more money from somewhere in place of public funding;
  • £6,000 isn’t enough, on average;
  • An access agreement is required for £6,000.01 just the same as it is required for £9,000, so there is little incentive to charge below the £9,000 maximum.
  • As the average £7,500 required is above the unrestricted cap, all universities are likely to require a written access agreement.

This is why, back in November, I suggested that the cap will become the price. If different prices do occur, my guess is that they will be £6,000 and £9,000; the two caps.

Now that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) have been issued with guidance for universities charging fees, commentators suggest that there’s not much stopping all institutions charging the maximum. David Willetts even states in the guidance to OFFA:

“It is, of course, not within your legal powers to impose any quota for how many institutions charge what level of graduate contribution, and that is consistent with our policy of an autonomous higher education sector, where institutions take their own decisions.”

Willetts suggests that further legislation may be required if all institutions charge the same amount. Universities, therefore, either face further turbulent times further down the line (when matters are already less favourable for them right now), or they face some kind of climb down from the government. Neither situation would be pleasant for anyone. Not for the government, not for the public, not for universities, and not for students.

OFFA’s role is to “promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for lower income and other under-represented groups” [source]. The government is, therefore, one step removed from social mobility arguments that could continue if access agreements don’t make the situation much better than they already are. Essentially, the ball is now in OFFA’s court.

But they’re in a tough position. You can see why £9,000 is being tipped as the way all universities will want/need to go. That’s before you take into account the idea of prestige. As soon as one institution suggests a lower fee, it will appear to be less worthy than those charging a higher amount, regardless of the realities.

There is little surprise that Oxbridge and Imperial are touting £9k fees. But it will only take one or two less ‘prestigious’ universities wanting to charge top whack for everyone else to follow suit. They’ll feel the *need* to follow suit, even if they’re thinking about charging slightly less.

When £3,000 fees were introduced in 2006-07, only Leeds Metropolitan offered a lower tuition fee (around £2,000). The move didn’t work for them and they eventually charged £3,000 like everyone else.

Will we see a repeat of this, with only a handful of institutions introducing lower fees? Who knows? The expectation remains — and is growing daily — that everyone will want to use £9,000 as the standard tuition fee.

As with everything in the future, only time will tell. But if we do see the tripling of fees as the norm, be sure to expect further moves in years to come. This is only the beginning of what may be a pretty long journey.

What will be the future of education?

Lord Browne’s Independent Review of HE Funding and Student Finance is due tomorrow.  If reports on the content of the review are to be believed, students are not going to be happy.

As students across the country prepare to march in London on 10 November 2010, I’d like to share some quotations with you that I spotted recently.

First up, on what education has become:

“There is no denying that education is an essential preparation for life and work in an advanced economy.  Modern economies require skilled and motivated workers, who can only profit from the opportunities they afford if they are equipped to respond to their demands.  So much is now received wisdom.

“But a large part of the problem with education is that this connection has become too direct.  Aristotle said that we educated ourselves so that we can make noble use of our leisure; this is a view directly opposed to the contemporary belief that we educated ourselves in order to get a job.  To that extent the contemporary view distorts the purpose of schooling, by aiming not at the development of individuals as ends in themselves, but as instruments in the economic process.”

A.C. Grayling, The Meaning of Things (2001)

The connection between education and economy comes even closer, showing no signs of stopping:

“…universities in need of funds had little choice but to accept corporate money.  As social status and career success correlated ever more closely with service to profit-making entities, many academics were willing to play along.  A Labour Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, channelled the spirit of the age when he claimed that the idea of education for its own sake was ‘a little bit dodgy’; students, he insisted, needed ‘a relationship with the workplace’.  This insistence that market values can be applied to education continues to inform both policy and rhetoric.  In November 2009 the irrepressible Peter Mandelson was promising a ‘consumer revolution’ in higher education.”

Dan Hind, The Return of the Public (2010)

The Browne Review is expected to recommend a continuation of this ‘consumer revolution’ by suggesting higher fees, a real rate of interest on loans, and the possible lifting of the fee cap altogether.  Universities must, therefore, ask (and answer) crucial questions on student matters:

“What is the value we add for each and every student above the basic cost of paying the staff who teach them and providing the core facilities that they have to have? We should be able to answer this question anyway, irrespective of whether the substitution of private for public funding of teaching goes through, and whether or not the cap on student fees is set at £5,000, £7,000 or more than £10,000. Being able to account for our premium will be essential both to setting the prices of our qualifications in the future, and to remaining competitive in a rather different world.”

Prof. Martin Hall (Vice Chancellor at Salford)

The BBC has a load of links with information on the future of universities and fees, but that detail and speculation cannot answer the question as posed by Professor Hall.  Each university will need to have an individual response based on their own position and qualities.

While this rolls along, the ‘student as consumer’ problem looms.  The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) published a series of documents on “Rethinking the values of higher education” in 2009, looking beyond the simplistic and misleading ‘consumer’ tag:

  1. Students as change agents?
  2. Consumption, partnership, community?
  3. The student as collaborator and producer?

Whatever the Browne Review concludes, and however students are perceived, we still have to see whether the coalition government will be in a position to feasibly implement the recommendations.  If the key recommendations are as expected, I’m not sure they can.