It’s a black day for students as the government confirms that universities can triple annual charges from 2012. Will this put young people off higher education or just force them into more debt?
So, after weeks of speculative headlines, the truth emerges. Student fees are rising. A lot.
The current cap on academic fees is £3,290. From 2012, most institutions will be set at a new threshold of £6,000 a year. In some ‘exceptional cases’, universities can charge more than this – up to a ceiling of £9,000.
But just how exceptional does an ‘exceptional case’ have to be? The government says that in order to charge more than £6,000, institutions ‘will have to show how they will spend some of the additional income making progress in widening participation and fair access’.
That’s all well and good, but what about the students’ return on their enormous investment? I’ve been talking to recent graduates who work here at Which? to find out what they think of the changes.
Making degrees value for money
Rachel Easter has a definite view on what this kind of money should buy. ‘I’d want a full schedule of classes from the best teachers out there, top quality and personal feedback on my progress, a high degree of focus on employability in my degree and a guarantee that I would get at least a 2:1,’ she says.
Matthew England agrees that the changes will put much more pressure on school leavers to consider value for money when making decisions about their courses. ‘I’m from a middle class background and knew my parents could support me, so I picked a subject that interested me,’ he says. ‘While I did consider my eventual employability, the thought of comparing the ‘value for money’ of different courses didn’t really come into the equation’
Students from lower-income backgrounds
But what of the students who come from lower-income families, like Grace Duffy? She graduated from LSE in 2006 and had her tuition fees paid for her, though she had to take out £15,000 in loans to cover the cost of living in London.
‘If I had to repay an additional £27,000 – taking my student debt to £42,000 – I may have reconsidered going to university or settled for a less prestigious institution that charged lower fees,’ explains Grace. ‘It would be tragic if the destination of students leaving school was determined not by their grades but by their financial situation. For many students from lower income families, taking on a debt of over £40,000 would be inconceivable.’
Drew Ritchie, who grew up in Glasgow, and had his higher education paid for by the Scottish Government, agrees, suggesting that the rises will create a two-tier system. ‘Those from the poorest households will be excluded from a high quality education and forced to settle for under-funded, poor quality alternatives,’ he argues. ‘They will then come out the other side less likely to find a job, yet still in debt.’
What’s the bigger picture?
So, are there any positives to be taken from today’s announcement? ‘I do think there’s a problem of too many students going to university just because it’s ‘the done thing’ at that age. This will make school leavers less inclined to automatically choose to study further,’ says Matthew. ‘Saying that, this isn’t necessarily a good thing as it makes a degree more and more of a commodity, when in reality going to uni is about much more than this.’
What’s been your reaction to this news? Will higher fees really change the shape of our education system or should students just shoulder the debt and get on with it?