Are £9,000 Fees Really Putting People Off Of University?

Today on Twitter a lot of statistics were being about the decline in the number of UCAS applications. As it’s the first year that UK/EU undergraduate students will have to pay up to £9,000 a year on tuition fees for their university education (for the majority will be paid for through a Student Loan), any decline in applications is going to be viewed as “government policy discouraging people from applying to university.”

So low and behold:

“UCAS: Total applicant numbers at this stage of the cycle are 7.4% lower than at the same point in 2011.”

Cue general anger towards the government’s policy…

After reading the rather exceptional ‘The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through a World of Numbers‘ I’ve become much more critical of statistics used by the media, and how any correlation may not be as significant as it seems. Statistics on higher education are no exception.

I submitted my UCAS in October 2009 when university fees were still capped at around £3,000. However, Sixth Formers knew an election would be taking place in May 2010 and that whatever party won, government spending would be slashed. It was generally predicted that between May and September 2010, tuition fees would increase.  Thus, I was told constantly by teachers that you had to apply in this cycle of UCAS. Even if you were planning to take a gap year, don’t wait until next year as the fees are likely to go up – apply as a now for a deferred place. And definitely don’t miss the UCAS deadline. 

Yet, my teachers were wrong about tuition fee rises, but only that they weren’t go to increase for applicants in the 2010/2011 UCAS cycle. Yet, with the Browne Review in progress at the time it became every more likely that the fees would be increasing for the 2011/2012 cycle. So I guess the message from teacher would’ve been similar to these applicants as they were for me: apply this year or regret it later.

Furthermore, a couple have pointed out that although the number of 18-year-olds applying to university had declined, the number of 18-year-olds had declined too. This led the Chief Executive of UCAS to conclude “The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people … shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK.” That could easily account those with gap year plans who chose to apply for a deferred place last year applying with their A-level grades this year.

So are £9,000 fees putting people off of university? I’m genuinely not sure, and at this stage I don’t think anybody can be. However, I’ve recently started employment as a Student Ambassador at the University of Sheffield, where I will be able to directly ask young people this (and hopefully convince them not to be!).

My View on LSE’s Tuition Fee Announcement

The London School of Economics’s board narrowly rejected the school charge £9,000 tuition fees for  UK/EU students in 2012/13. Instead the view is that they should be set at £8,000.

This is important to me as a Sheffield University student for a number of reasons:

Firstly, this comes a huge surprise. The majority of universities who have announced tuition fees for 2012/13 have chosen to set them at £9,000. This includes all of the so-called “elite” Russell Group universities (including Sheffield) as well as a significant number of institutions who, let’s face it, in terms of academic excellence and reputation couldn’t hold a candle to the LSE.

LSE are not shy about charging their students high tuition fees. For an international undergraduate, LSE will charge £14,592 a year, subject to inflationary rises. Their most expensive Masters programs costs a whopping a £25,488 in tuition alone.

Nobody would’ve batted an eyelid if LSE had opted to charge £9,000. It’s known to be one of the competitive universities in the UK in terms of entry. Some of its courses there are around 20 applicants per place. Some are proud of LSE for not charging the full fees. However I am confused. This coming from a university that considered going private less than a year ago.

Some comments on the Guardian thought it may be a PR stunt after the university’s links with the Gaddafi family. But how would this tuition fee announcement benefit it at all? Nobody’s going to write-off LSE as one of the most academically renowned universities in the world because of the Libya scandal. I thoroughly doubt that would’ve suffered a drop in applications from undergraduates if they chose them to set them £9,000. It’s still got a stellar academic reputation.

In fact, worryingly, if you look at the proposals charging £8,000 in fees is actually far worse than charging £9,000. If you look at the actual proposals which were published by LSE:

1) An £8,000 fee would mean that those with a household income of less than £25,000 would get a £2,000 bursary, and those with less than £42,600 would get £600. £800 would also be spent on access courses/widening participation.

2) An £9,000 fee would mean that those with a household income of less than £25,000 would get a £4,000 bursary, and those with less than £42,600 would get £1,500. £1,500 would also be spent on access courses/widening participation.

So let me get this straight, so the proposal that LSE rejected which would’ve increased fees by £1,000 a year would’ve enabled less well off students to gain in an increase in bursaries between £2000 and £900.

Even for those at the higher end of the bursary scheme, who essentially lose out on £100 under £9,000, would benefit overall. Tuition fees themselves are a very odd concept. You never have to budget for them when you’re at university as they’re a separate loan which never enters or leaves your bank account. Bursaries are much more important. In my experience, maintenance loans generally only cover the cost of your accommodation. Actual living costs generally have to come from maintenance grants, university bursaries, student’s own savings or Mummy and Daddy.

I remember looking into bursaries for LSE before I applied for university. I would’ve got twice as much going to Sheffield than the LSE. Would’ve got even more if I chose to go to Birmingham. It didn’t really make sense for me, being from a working-class family, that I would’ve got less financial assistance if I chose to live in the more expensive city.

So to cut a long story short, I think LSE are being really unfair on the lowest earners by choosing to charge £8,000 fees. Anyone applying to LSE with a reasonable chance of getting in is inevitably going to be applying to universities charging £9,000. Their reputation speaks for itself, they don’t need an extra economic incentive for applicants to apply. And you can hardly call them a generous institution when charging up to £25,488 for a Masters degree. Bursaries are far more beneficial to those from a lower income background: tuition fee loans don’t affect whether you can take up a place at university or not – your ability to finance your own living costs do.

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