Fee information may be withheld

June 11, 2004

Universities worried about how to set their tuition fees and bursaries may "hold back" information from their 2006 prospectus and risk leaving sixth-formers temporarily in the dark about the cost of study.

The Times Higher has learnt that some institutions may omit the full picture about fees and financial aid when they print their prospectuses later this year to give them more time to complete market research.

The Secondary Heads Association (SHA) warned that sixth-formers would turn away from universities that delayed releasing information and said that late publication would be "self-defeating".

Most universities approached for comment this week remained bullish about the likelihood of including all fee and bursary information.

But a 1960s university and more than one post-92 university conceded privately that the timing would be tight and that some details may be printed separately.

Cambridge University added that its prospectus would be published in February, ahead of the annual round of higher education admissions fairs.

A university spokeswoman added: "We would like to be able to include full details of bursaries and tuition fees. Whether or not that's going to be possible will depend on the timetable available to determine the details if, and/or when the Higher Education Bill hits the statute books."

Ironically, there were also warnings this week - from both Birmingham University and the University of Central Lancashire - that students would be "bombarded" with information about entry in 2006.

Most institutions will have their 2006 prospectuses ready for the printers at the end of this year, ready for publication early in 2005.

Simon Hackwell, head of the higher education advisory team at consultants KPMG, said: "Some institutions may hold back from publishing their fee and scholarship arrangements for a few weeks in the new year, even after the prospectus has been published.

"The reason behind it is the time it takes to understand and analyse the market properly and see whether different propositions would work.

"There are risks attached to that strategy; a risk that an applicant's initial shortlisting may be influenced if the information available isn't clear and explicit about financial arrangements.

"But, equally, there is a risk for universities in making the wrong decision and investing in scholarships that don't work."

Mr Hackwell said that extracting clear market information from teenagers about their future intentions was difficult.

Some universities were relying on "proxy focus groups" of current undergraduates and applicants to try to gauge attitudes to different perks or bursary ideas, Mr Hackwell said.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service declined to comment in detail but said that websites and online prospectuses would be able to keep applicants up to date.

The Times Higher reported earlier this year that vice-chancellors are expecting to compete for students through bursaries and perks - such as free sports club membership or discounted accommodation - rather than vary top-up fees up to the £3,000 limit from 2006.

Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has been among those to warn that mistaken judgements in future competition for students "could have serious implications for the financial health of institutions".

Bob Carstairs, assistant general secretary of the SHA, said: "I would see universities who delayed (publishing details) doing themselves down. I think students would look at a prospectus and say 'I don't know what is demanded of me, so I don't think I'll bother with this one' and try another university. It would be a self-defeating ordinance."

Birmingham, Bournemouth, Durham, Kingston and Leicester universities have already decided in principle - or are "working on the assumption" that they will charge the maximum £3,000 fee from 2006, although they have yet to reveal their plans for student support.

Other universities - including Cambridge, Imperial, Exeter, Surrey and Royal Holloway, University of London - have announced they will offer bursaries of up to £4,000 a year.

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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