Stormy warnings ahead in higher education


JoeMaquire looks at rocky road ahead in Higher Education.

Submitted by JoeMaguire on August 12, 2012

It was announced this week that there was a 15,000 drop in applicants to HE institutions. Most notably this drop in numbers was centred on England, because the £9,000 cap on tuition fees does not affect Welsh or Northern Ireland students who will pay the £3,465 agreed base rate. Scottish students attending Scottish university are further exempt from fees entirely.

This signals out clearly that the hike in fee costs and the potential milestone of future debt (regardless if the repayment starts after graduates earn £21,000) is putting a significant number of people off the prospect of education. Given that the expansion of education in the post-war period as been a relatively sound way of taking large numbers out of the job market, adding the surplus of those who have opted out of HE to the youth unemployment figures of just over a million, is a sad indictment of the governments policies.

The cost of tuition fees, factored alongside those students taking out maintenance loans - to support them while they study, means student debt could easily hit around £40,000 for a three year degree (give or take bursaries, lower tuition fee charges but made excessively worse from repeat years of study and four year courses.) Will Hutton representing an Independent Commission on Fees investigating the impact of the new fees has been at pains to point out that the UK now operates the most expensive system of university funding in the world. Almost three times the personal cost involved in the US.

While David Willetts the University minister was quick to point out that there was a peak in applications the year before, and other commentators have spoken about the drop in numbers coming from largely higher income families, little is being said of the uncertainties of job security in the sector or what the full affects of Tories “new regime” fees experiment will have.

A significant drop in student numbers entails a knock-on effect for funding of Universities from HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) and other regional equivalents. UNISON recently revealed that government policies within FE in England had attributed to 60% of 248 respondents saying courses were cut due to funding cuts and funding eligibility rules. This is something which could easily be mirrored across the HE sector, as marginal subjects get squeezed and academics become excessively evaluated to arbitrary expectations.

This is happening alongside a clear policy designed to cherry-pick students with the best grades. Universities for the first time have quotas for non-AAB students, possibly squeezing those who have just missed out on top marks. And despite rhetoric to the contrary, privately educated students have increased their hold on the more selective institutions at the top end. This, in parallel to an increasing division between pre and post 92 institutions should be seen as part and parcel of a drive to restrict access to education.