What implications will raising tuition fees have for current students?

An article I’ve written for Graduates Anonymous, about the impact of the tuition fee rises on current students.

First, the good news. The amount that current students will pay for university remains unchanged. Changes to university fees won’t actually come into effect until 2012, which means that even if you start university in September 2011, you will still be paying fees of  £3000 a year for the whole of your degree. Although there will be no direct consequences of increasing current fees, there’s a few possible indirect consequences of raising fees to £9000 a year that could affect students at university at the moment.

1) Funding shortfall

In their infinite wisdom, the coalition government has decided to cut university funding before increasing fees that were intended to make up for the cut in government funding. This means a 6% cut to the university budget – about £400m – effective from this April; one year before the money will come in from the tuition fee rise. This comes after a £449m cut to the universities budget in February 2010, where the Research budget was frozen and buildings cost cut by 15%.

If research funding is cut, this could have implications for current students who want to do postgraduate study after their degree. These cuts mean that university staff with have to do “more with less” – which could affect staff morale and the quality of teaching they give to undergraduate students.

2) University/Course closures

A survey from the University and College Union found that one-third of universities were “at risk” as a result of government cuts. This is because those 49 universities are dependant to a large extent on government funding to survive. These universities could therefore be forced into mergers with other institutions or to close altogether.

Obviously those institutions that UCU have labelled as “high risk” are disputing this status, saying that they are popular with students and will survive regardless.

The Vice Chancellor of Chichester University has said that his institution should not be regarded as “high risk”; saying the UCU’s report was “politically motivated” and “completely fails to gauge the capacity of a university to thrive in the new framework”.

Perhaps more likely are courses closing at individual universities. Course closures have been happening for a while now,  and not just in so-called “Mickey Mouse” courses. Lecturers’ Unions have been concerned about the closure of physics courses for some time, as it could leave some parts of the UK unable to provide courses in science and maths.  

Course closures will obviously have implications for undergraduates on those courses at the moment. If you are studying at a course that, say, is going to close at the end of your degree and admit no more undergraduates, it is likely that those lecturers at those departments will leave for other academic departments before it closes. This leads on to my third point…

3) Brain Drain

David Blanchflower compared the current situation to Higher Education in the 1980s in a New Statesman column from a few months ago:

University heads and the president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, have warned of an academic brain drain… Less scientific funding is likely to lower the country’s economic competitiveness. I was among those who left the UK in the 1980s because of low academic salaries and poor research funding. Here we go again.

This could affect the quality of teaching at universities for current undergraduates, if some of the better staff decide to go abroad, or even leave academia altogether.

4) Postgraduate Fees

What if current undergraduates want to stay on after their degree and do a masters, or even a doctorate? Do the fees increases have any implications for them then?

There is no word of whether postgraduate fees would increase. The postgraduate fees market is a relatively free one anyway, with little government funding and universities able to charge what they like. It is therefore possible that there will be little change to postgraduate fees, because at the moment they are the market price: between about 4,000 and 5,000 a year on average.

However, I would be very surprised if postgraduate fees did not rise as a result of these proposals. If charging £9000 a year for university fees becomes socially acceptable, perhaps this could encourage universities to raise their prices. Especially since they might have to raise these to cover the funding shortfall that I mentioned in reason 1).

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