Don’t let fees billy boil over

We must heed warnings in Hepi’s academic experience survey before following Australia’s lead and abolishing tuition fee caps

May 22, 2014

Hardly a moment has passed in the past four years when tuition fees were not at the centre of the higher education debate. But just when you thought it might be safe to leave the house, they have been thrust firmly back into the spotlight by Australia’s move to abolish fee caps.

Although it seems unlikely before the general election that anyone will openly call for removing the fee cap here, the move Down Under does raise the stakes, especially given that the amount being spent per student in England looks to be on a downward path thanks to a frozen fee cap and the expansion of places.

But anyone contemplating opening the fees Pandora’s box may want to take heed of the 2014 academic experience survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute, which for the first time has provided a “complete picture” of life under £9,000 tuition.

Is it wise to heap even more financial pressure on the one-off choices made by young people who have limited, and often misleading, information?

The statistics on whether students feel their degrees are “value for money” are a huge warning sign for universities, and indeed politicians.

Although almost half (44 per cent) of full-time undergraduates do think they receive at least “good” value for money – a quarter (not an insubstantial amount) believe their degree is a “poor” or “very poor” return on their investment.

For first- and second-years at English universities it is worse – those who think they are getting poor or very poor value for money has leapt from one sixth (18.3 per cent) two years ago to one third (33.1 per cent) now.

Couple this with the Hepi findings that students are a full 10 percentage points less likely than the general population to say they feel happy, and it is clear the ramifications of hiking fees extend far beyond any effect on applications.

These results suggest, as the National Union of Students has been warning for a long time, that being saddled with a £,000 debt (which then grows with interest) does fundamentally alter students’ mindset while at university.

The first six months of a degree are already the most daunting of many students’ lives as they question whether they’ve chosen the right course, the right university and even the right path in life. Putting a monetary weight on this only increases the pressure.

Of course, in many ways that is the point – if students have a real reason to care about the quality of their course then they may push for improvement.

The problem is that most students get only one shot – if you want to change course or institution it is pretty impossible to take any credit with you (hence Hepi’s laudable recommendation for change in this area).

So is it really wise to heap even more financial pressure on the one-off choices made by young people who have limited, and often misleading, information at their disposal?

Returning to Australia, it may not have been a surprise – given that he is chair of the Million+ group of post-92 universities – that Michael Gunn, vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University, warned last week against treating the country as some “funding nirvana”. He suggested instead that we could look to Europe’s systems of low-cost tuition.

This may be wishful thinking (especially after voting in this week’s elections), but given Hepi’s findings, perhaps we should look at all the evidence before waltzing with Matilda.

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