University tuition fees – emerging evidence from the UK

University tuition fees are a hot topic across Europe and one not likely to cool down. Indeed, recent European Commission reports support the idea of tuition fees across European universities, though as GlobalHigherEd has also pointed out, low or no fees are also a competitive advantage in the race to secure a share of the global higher education market. Nevertheless, those advancing the ‘fees/fee increase’ argument tend to mobilize one of the following claims:

  • fees (for local, EU and international students) are necessary in order to facilitate a crucial injection of cash into the system enabling Europe to compete more effectively on the global stage;
  • this is the model that underpins the global higher education leader — the US; and
  • fees would bring various Member States within Europe into line – as currently there are a range of patterns making student mobility across Europe more complicated than it should be.

bristol.jpgLast week’s report for the UK-based Sutton Trust, Knowing Where to Study? Fees, Bursaries and Fair Access, conducted by the Institute for Educational Policy Research and Institute for Access Studies (IEPR/IAS), Staffordshire University, paints a rather depressing picture of the consequences of the 2006 fee hike in UK universities for teenagers of poorer families. These include:

  • nearly 2/3rds of young people who decided not to study at higher education institutions cited concerns over the significant debt this would entail;
  • students from poorer families are now significantly more likely to live at home rather than live away (18% in 1998 compared with 56% in 2007);
  • students from families whose incomes were below £35,000 were more likely to consider a local university;
  • students from wealthier families are more likely to move to a university in a different city – opening up greater options for choice guided by the ‘reputation’ of the programme and institution;
  • more than half of the students of poorer families interviewed expected to work between 10 and 20 hours per week; and
  • very few students from poorer families knew about maintenance grants that might enable them to support their university studies.

According to the lead article in the Guardian published on the 14th Feb on this issue, UCAS – the central service for managing applications to UK universities – reported a 7% increase in the overall numbers applying to university. However, this figure appears to disguise the class-based nature of choices in that amongst poorer families this figure is stagnating.

‘Access’ is not the only problem. Today BBC News reported that ‘retention’ – particularly of students from poorer families – is also a big issue. This is despite the UK government spending some £800 million in tackling a problem that clearly goes deeper than the 2006 fee increase. As the Financial Times notes:

Universities and colleges were given £213m in 2004-05 to help students without a family history of university attendance. But 22 per cent of students starting in 2004-05 are forecast to drop out before completing their courses – the same percentage as for 2001-02.

Work commitments, financial concerns and health issues are cited in the literature as important reasons for why students fail to both continue on and complete university studies. The 2006 fee increase, especially when those groups worst affected are unaware of the measures that might help alleviate the problem, must be seen as antagonizing an already existing major problem.

No doubt these findings will be of interest to other European Member States – especially those considering introducing fees. While not all European countries have patterns of access like the UK (that is geographic dispersement), the over-riding findings of the Sutton Trust study is likely to be more widely shared.

To be fair, the UK government, after much heated and very tense debates in the Parliament, finally agreed to put into place a range of forms of fee and living support in order to get the Bill through which enabled fee increases. However it would seem that the Government has not been effective in selling its policy to those it was intended to benefit.

Figures like these, which suggest a stagnating pool of students from poorer families going to university and a solidifying geography of uneven access to higher education, do not sit well with a wider government rhetoric about unlocking the potential of each individual and the nation in order to realise a knowledge-based economy.

Knowledge, the conditions of access and its realisation, must surely be a key ‘knowledge-economy’ strategy to ensure that universities widen rather than narrow opportunities. Unless, of course, we take the European Commission’s view seriously; that there is too much egalitarianism in Europe.

Susan Robertson

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