Critical interpretation

February 25, 2010

"How high? 'Reasonable number' would accept fees hike" (11 February) raised valid points about tuition-fee levels. However, there was some debatable interpretation of the survey results featured that could distort a crucial debate.

The biggest issue is that the survey focuses on the price at which students reject paying for degrees. The authors view rejection as a close proxy to demand, but this is not the case. The conclusion that "if tuition fees were increased to £6,000, then approximately 60 per cent of students would reject a course" cannot be interpreted as "because 60 per cent say no, 40 per cent would say yes".

In recent research, we found that where 50 per cent of students indicated that a certain degree price was too expensive, only 10 per cent felt it was acceptable, so there is a significant difference in the price at which people state they definitely will and won't buy something. Just because I definitely would not buy a new television for £3,000 does not mean I definitely would for £2,900.

Also, the survey questions existing students. Thus, it is no surprise that the least-rejected price is the current one of £3,000. This accounts for the strange and counter-intuitive finding that more students would pay £3,000 than £2,900. While price is in some cases an indicator of quality, demand for top-quality degrees wouldn't fall if the price fell.

I believe the survey overinflates students' willingness to pay. My concern is that sound bites such as "more than half of students would pay £5,000" will dominate the debate, and more reliable and important findings regarding differential fees will be lost.

Finally, this should not detract from the fundamental issue - universities are facing tough times and need forward-thinking solutions to raise income.

Mark Billige, Partner, Simon-Kucher & Partners.

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