Leader: Unknown half-life of fees fallout

With the first cohort of £9K students settling in, there is still no clear idea about how cost is affecting numbers and teaching

October 18, 2012

Under grey, drizzly skies that mirrored some of their moods, first-year students spoke frankly about the impact of the tuition fee hike on their attitudes to university.

Their focus was in many cases the same: the affordability of a degree, a gnawing sense of injustice and the pressure to get a good (for which read "well-paid") job after graduation, which has clearly been intensified by the fees rise and continuing economic gloom.

Attitudes are not homogeneous among those quoted in our feature this week.

One 18-year-old from an affluent background observes that since his parents had been paying school fees of almost £20,000 a year, £9,000 "seems cheap".

But it is striking that, for all the concern about future earnings and the frequent anger at being charged three times as much as their peers in the year above, very few first-years discussed the demands that they will be making of their tutors or their sky-high expectations about such issues as contact hours, class sizes and teaching quality.

Of course, a few interviews cannot offer anything more than a snapshot.

But is the lack of comment on the much-trailed "consumer" attitudes a sign that universities have heeded warnings and upped their game?

Comments made last week by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, suggest that the government remains unconvinced.

During a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Mr Willetts is reported to have accused universities of underestimating the extent to which they will need to improve teaching. At Christmas, he predicted, parents will be grilling their children about the number of lectures, contact hours and essay assignments they are getting.

One significant voice that is absent from our vox pop is that of the 54,000 people who are missing from the official figures on student acceptances released on 14 September by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Mr Willetts argues that there are legitimate reasons for this fall in student numbers, and that it is likely to be a blip, but within that number are bound to be thousands who just could not justify the cost, regardless of the ins and outs of the repayment plan.

Research conducted for the second annual Student Finance Day last month found that even among those who have taken the leap and entered higher education (and despite the redoubling of efforts to explain the system), 60 per cent remain concerned about how they will repay their loan if, after graduation, they fail to land a job or earn only a low salary.

And while some analyses of the available data suggest that poor students have not been disproportionately put off by the fees hike, we report this week on doubts raised by experts about this interpretation of the figures, which is counter-intuitive to say the least.

These questions are likely to be bolstered by the news that the number of higher education students taking places at further education colleges has fallen by at least 10 per cent.

As one fresher at the London School of Economics puts it: "I know loads of people who decided not to go because of the fees - they could do a lot for the world, but now they can't because of money issues."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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