Posted tagged ‘England’

Tuition fees in England and support for access

July 13, 2011

In the aftermath of the details released yesterday by the Office for Fair Access (Offa) on tuition fees and access programmes in England, the 1994 Group of universities issued the following comment:

‘The 1994 Group of leading universities has today pledged to balance investments in widening participation with the need to uphold and enhance high quality student experiences. The Group’s commitment comes on the day that the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) reveals that 1994 Group universities will, on average, spend 26.2% of tuition fee income above £6000 on measures to widen participation in 2012, rising to 28.4% in 2015.’

Where a university is charging £9,000 (as is planned by all but one of the 1994 Group), 28.4 per cent of the fee income above £6,000 will be £852. This in turn will represent just under 9.5 per cent of the total fee income. When the remaining state support for teaching is added, that percentage will reduce further.

While it is obviously highly laudable that institutions are focusing on access initiatives, and that they are being encouraged by Offa to be more ambitious in that respect, it has to be said that contrary to what is suggested in the 1994 Group statement, 9.5 per cent of fee income is not an impressive investment in access, and will not necessarily lead to a statistically significant change in opportunities for the disadvantaged.

It would of course be unfair to criticise the 1994 Group, who are working constructively with what they have been given; but there is still much more work to be done on what would constitute a reasonable investment in access in a system where, increasingly, higher education participation is fee-based. But the investment that universities will need to make in such a setting will probably need to be closer to 20 per cent of fee income than 9.5 per cent.

Tuition fees in England: the Offa outcomes

July 12, 2011

It is well known by now that England’s universities are to be allowed to charge tuition fees of up to £6,000, or up to £9,000 if they reach an access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. This latter body, Offa, has now released the full list of tuition fees and details of agreements reached with individual universities.

First, it is clear from the data released that the planned fees have not been adjusted in the case of any university. As a result 47 out of a total of 123 English universities will charge the maximum permitted fee of £9,000. On this basis the average fee payable by students to English universities will be £8,393. However, in the table produced by Offa allowance has been made for fee waivers, bursaries and scholarships, and when these have been taken into account the average is reduced to £7,793. Again according to Offa, institutions will now invest £602 million in access measures that will improve participation by members of disadvantaged groups.

At the same time we also now have information about tuition fees in Wales: the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has announced that the average fee in Wales will be £8,800, though Welsh students will have a significant proportion of this refunded by the Welsh government.

What the impact of all this will be on higher education, participation levels, student attrition, student migration and access for the disadvantaged remains to be seen. It is also not at all clear at this point how effective the Offa régime is turning out to be. It is certain that a lot of attention will be focused on the higher education experience in England over coming years.

The future of higher education: the outlook from England

June 29, 2011

The British government has now issued its long-expected and somewhat delayed White Paper on the future of England’s system of higher education. The title – Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System – gives a clue as to how the government wants to present its new educational order. It is being presented more as a framework for empowering students than as a framework for adjusting funding methods and sources.

It seems to me that the following three paragraphs (6, 7 and 10 in the executive summary) describe the essence of the government’s higher education policy for England.

‘6. The changes we are making to higher education funding will in turn drive a more responsive system. To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to prospective students and be respected by employers. Putting financial power into the hands of learners makes student choice meaningful.

‘7. We will move away from the tight number controls that constrain individual higher education institutions, so that there is a more dynamic sector in which popular institutions can grow and where all universities must offer a good student experience to remain competitive. We will manage this transition carefully to avoid unnecessary instability and keep within the overall budget.

’10. We will make it easier for new providers to enter the sector. We will simplify the regime for obtaining and renewing degree-awarding powers so that it is proportionate in all cases. We will review the use of the title ‘university’ so there are no artificial barriers against smaller institutions. It used to be possible to set up a new teaching institution teaching to an external degree. Similarly, it was possible to set exams for a degree without teaching for it as well. We will once more decouple degree-awarding powers from teaching in order to facilitate externally-assessed degrees by trusted awarding bodies.’

On the whole, early reaction has been fairly balanced, as this site maintained by the Guardian shows. But the substance of the White Paper has been described by some commentators as a further move towards the commodification of higher education. I’m not sure I necessarily see it that way. Rather, the British government is presenting higher education as part of a new competitive environment, in which institutions compete for students and the resources they bring, and with each other and with new entrants (many of them private and for-profit).

The question that this poses is whether such competition will prompt excellence and innovation, or whether its impact will be less desirable. For example, will new private teaching institutions raise the overall pedagogical game as the government anticipates, or will they merely produce commercial advantage for the new players? Could leading global news organisations – the New York Times being the latest one that is making such a move – introduce something innovative and interesting? Or might this be just a corporate land grab that won’t add anything to higher education innovation and quality?

In fairness we probably have to say that the jury is out. The government is presenting its ideas as being about institutional responsiveness to student interests (which some students might find hard to recognise given the new fees régime) – will they also be able to prompt educational excellence? What makes at least this commentator sceptical about that outcome is that the White Paper is focused primarily on process and resources, rather than on pedagogy and scholarship. Chapter 2 of the document does address teaching excellence, but places it mainly in the context of contact hours and course information. In the end though it is the content and method of teaching, and the link between student learning and staff scholarship, that determine excellence. They are more important even than money, or at least they come before money in higher education planning. And for reforms to work, that must be understood.

Buying into the idea of a university

May 10, 2011

For those of us not working in English higher education, the stream of news coming from there consistently manages to amaze. The latest story, which may or may not have been fully grounded in reality, was that the British government was contemplating the idea of having unfunded university places that could, therefore, be filled by those with the means to buy their way in at full cost fees (with or without the normally expected academic qualifications).

In the latest twist to this story, Prime Minister David Cameron has said that this is not the plan; but there is a suspicion that ideas were floated along these lines but then dropped when it looked to be generating too much opposition.

Whether the story in its original form was true or not, there is now a dangerous level of instability and unpredictability in English higher education, which is unsettling the sector and affecting its reputation at home and overseas. Having higher education chaos in England is not in the interests of the rest of us, not least because the disease is catching. It is, perhaps, time for a less wacky approach to university matters south of the border.

Privatising higher education

April 26, 2011

From time to time it has been suggested by critics of recent reforms in higher education that university heads want to ‘privatise’ their institutions. Mostly this charge has been without any real foundation. That, however, does not mean that privatisation cannot happen. Indeed, a report in yesterday’s Times newspaper suggests it may become a reality in England much sooner than anyone might have anticipated.

According to the report, the British government is considering handing over ‘failing universities’ in England to private companies to run them. And if you were wondering what that means, the article in the Times suggests that BPP, the private higher education provider, may already have been lined up to undertake this role. The company’s chief executive, Carl Lygo, knows exactly how he would tackle the job, according to the Times:

‘Mr Lygo said that the first step for anyone taking over the management of a university would be to cut or merge functions already covered by its head office, such as finance team, marketing or public relations. He said: “I have looked through some of the university cost base and I think we could probably save them, just on procurement savings alone, 25 per cent of their cost base, which is obviously very interesting to government”.’

If this is really being contemplated, it would be a much more radical change in English higher education than anything that has ever been done before. Its significance would not lie in how much a private company could generate in savings or efficiencies, but rather in the overall understanding of how higher education works and what it is supposed to achieve. However good BPP may be at what it does, it is a training institution, not a university. This would not be a minor change or a new efficiency drive, it would represent a different understanding of the nature and purpose of a university. Even if such a change is right, it requires a much more thorough discussion before it could or should be contemplated.

Interesting times, south of the border. Or maybe scary.

Is your tuition fee a status symbol?

April 25, 2011

For those observing the admittedly extraordinary spectacle of tuition fee announcements by English universities, a statement by one university head may have raised eyebrows even more. The Vice-Chancellor of Teesside University, Professor Graham Henderson, in announcing tuition fees of £8,500 (just below the maximum permitted) was reported in the Daily Telegraph as saying that ‘imposing fees “at the bottom of the spectrum” would make undergraduates feel substandard.’

So is this true? Will students conclude that any university charging £7,000 must be nearly 30 per cent worse than all those institutions charging £9,000? Indeed is Professor Henderson suggesting to his undergraduates that their university is just over 5 per cent less good than, say, nearby Newcastle University or Brighton University down south, but 6 per cent or so better than the University of Derby? And more to the point, do students really see it this way? Are Teesside students mightily relieved and pleasantly re-assured that their fees will be £8,500 rather than £6,000?

Professor Henderson is not alone in this view; other university heads have suggested something similar. But this is driving higher education into quite absurd realms, where it is intended to persuade us that students will be influenced positively by high fees. It underscores again the bizarre impact of the new English funding and resourcing framework. The fear must be that English higher education is being seriously compromised by it. Others will hope that this effect can be contained within England.

The English way of doing things

April 20, 2011

So there it is, then. The final day came and went for universities in England to declare if they were proposing to charge fees in excess of £6,000, and a number came forward, mostly as we have come to expect declaring they will charge £9,000 (the upper limit permitted by the government). Some made a point of declaring their intentions to do all sorts of good things for access students from some of the proceeds, and some pointed out how hard (apparently) it had been to take this decision.

What happens now is not easy to see.  The British government clearly did not anticipate how its new funding framework would operate, and seems to have been taken by surprise by something almost everyone predicted, and may also be in some denial. The universities in turn have behaved with very little imagination and innovation in setting fees. The declaration by the 1994 Group of universities that these fees are really all in the students’ interests may not seem obvious to every one of those students.

But more than anything else, most of those observing the events in England may be driven to conclude that this looks like a higher education system that has money rather than education at the heart of its strategy. That would be an unfair conclusion, but both the government and the universities have done little to dispel it.

In the meantime, the reason why those of us working in higher education elsewhere in the UK might also be concerned about all this is because what has happened in England may affect our financial stability and moreover may affect our reputation, as international observers don’t always realise that the new funding and fees framework in England does not apply in, say, Scotland. The confusion in England is bad for all of us.

The confusion and mess in English higher education

April 1, 2011

As English universities come to the end of the period during which they have had to decide on what fees they will charge domestic students, it has become clear that pretty well all of them have ignored the UK government’s suggestion that only a small minority should charge the maximum permitted £9,000. In fact of the 16 universities that have declared so far, ten have said they will charge the full £9,000, while the remaining six have all pegged their fees above £6,000. In fact it is now expected that no university in England will hold fees at £6,000 or less.

Meanwhile the British government is facing a serious problem because they had not budgeted for this; the government will have to pay the fees up front before they are, wholly or partially, repaid by the students some time after graduation.

Also, given the stampede of universities charging fees at or near the maximum level, the agency established to ensure that the institutions have viable access policies (the Office for Fair Access) will be in real difficulty as it does not have the staffing to manage the unexpected volume of business.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this situation has not been handled well either by the government (which looks amateurish in all of this and naive in not having anticipated what has happened) or by the universities (which look unimaginative and greedy).

New York Times gives editorial attention to English tuition fees

December 12, 2010

An editorial in Friday’s New York Times took a closer look at the new framework of funding and tuition fees in England. While the writer condemned the violence that has taken place on the margins of student protests, the key point of the editorial was that the new framework is ‘bad public policy, both myopic and unfair’. The key reasons given for this judgement were that the new policy has stripped out too much public funding in what the paper calls ‘arbitrary spending cuts’, and that some (particularly the less well off) will find the prospect of relatively high debts on graduation too daunting and may drift away from higher education.

Interestingly, the need for a contribution by students to the cost of their teaching is no longer a major controversial issue in England, though the amount of such a contribution is; but for most the acceptance of a contribution is still predicated on the assumption that the state will pay a significant proportion. The Browne proposals, as amended and adopted this past week by the British parliament, envisage a very significant withdrawal by the state from this role of funder.

Perhaps most dangerous of all for Britain is the conclusion suggested by the New York Times:

‘Britain’s crisis-swollen budget deficits, like America’s, need to be brought down as the economy recovers. The cutting must be done wisely, protecting investments in the economic future, like education. The sacrifices must be equitably shared. By any of those terms, this new policy is an utter failure.’

The British government will need to work very hard to ensure that its new policy is not seen internationally largely as a plan to disinvest in higher education. Economic growth and new investment may depend on it.