Continental tours for 'captive' UK audience

April 5, 2012

Russell Group institutions may be pressing the government for higher fees, as Roger Brown contends ("Victors and spoils", 29 March). If so, they do not recognise the realities of the international competition they face.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge could, if allowed, charge higher fees reflecting their status as prestige global brands. More modest institutions largely operate within their local economies, for instance to meet the needs of professions such as teaching and nursing. But the middle-ranking English universities are in a more difficult position.

In the 20th century, the UK government poured resources into provincial universities then referred to as "redbricks", not least to compensate for the decline of manufacturing in the North of England and elsewhere. As a result, considerable numbers of students from wealthier areas were attracted to the institutions, increasing their size and reputation.

Times have changed. Using cheap flights or the Channel Tunnel, today it is not significantly harder to travel from London or the South East of England to Europe than to many British cities: indeed, it is sometimes easier. As a result, Russell Group universities are in direct competition with European institutions, notably those in the Netherlands and Scandinavia that teach in English and have comparable world rankings but charge much lower fees.

Government decision-makers and their cash-hungry university counterparts seem to think that English students are a captive market they can milk financially. But many of our most talented school leavers will go abroad unless fees for English universities are reduced to the levels charged elsewhere in Europe. It will be hard to get these people back once they have graduated, with serious consequences for the UK's economic recovery.

Frederic Stansfield, Canterbury, Kent

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