Friday, 1 July 2011

All change in the higher education world

This week has been a fascinating one in the world of higher education in the UK, with lots of new developments.
  • Attracting most attention, probably, we had the publication of the Government's long-awaited - and delayed - White Paper on higher education, Students at the Heart of the System.
  • Then up here in Scotland, the Scottish education minister, Mike Russell announced that for English students studying at Scottish universities, institutions would be able to charge fees up to £9000 per annum from 2012-13, helping to fill the so called 'funding gap' opening up between Scottish and English universities.
  • Last, and in the short term least important, 42 senior academics resigned from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) peer review college, in protest at the Council's inclusion of several references to the government's Big Society idea in its latest delivery plan.
Now, the White Paper and the AHRC developments will be covered in later posts, while today I shall simply remark on the funding decision announced by Mike Russell. The detailed implications of the fee announcement are not completely clear just yet. For instance I don't know whether the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) will play any role in influencing what fees individual Scottish institutions will be able to set for English students, or whether this will be wholly up to the universities themselves to decide. However, I suspect the latter.

Whatever the situation, I think that the sector now needs some major decisions to be taken quite rapidly, partly to shape institutions' own financial positions, partly to give guidance to potential applicants from England for 2012-13.

One obvious point, already highlighted in some press reporting, is that if Scottish universities opt to charge the maximum allowed fee, then a Scottish degree could cost an English student £36,000, since our degrees are normally awarded after a four year period of study. One might imagine that such a high cost would deter many students from coming up here to study, but we don't actually know a great deal about the responsiveness of student demand to 'price'. However, anticipating this factor, institutions could respond in two ways:

(a) They could set a lower fee, so that over four years the total cost was comparable with that for a three-year English degree; or

(b) We could see far wider use of the practice of allowing well qualified students to enter a Scottish university in the second year of their degree programme. As a result, the traditional Scottish four-year degree might be eroded quite rapidly, as Scottish students are bound to seek the same entry conditions as the English ones, surely. In that case, after a few years (5 to 10 years, I imagine), there might not be many students still wanting to do our four-year degrees, which will pose quite a challenge to universities currently set up to run such degrees. Interesting.....

The bizarre situation, of course, is that while English students can be charged high fees, as can non-EU overseas students, those coming from other EU member states would, under current rules, have to be offered the same 'free' higher education that Scottish students will continue to enjoy. I put 'free' in quotation marks to indicate that it's not really free - the Scottish government pays universities a fee to cover the costs of these EU students. The Scottish government is currently trying to persuade Brussels to change the rules that create this situation, but I'm not optimistic that they will succeed.

If the rules don't change, then Scotland should not be in any hurry to seek full independence if higher education funding were part of the argument. For then England would be a distinct EU member state, and English students could no longer be asked to pay fees unless Scottish students also did so.

Moreover, setting high fees for 'the English' might not prove very comfortable politically, since such discrimination - even though legally perfectly proper - might not make it easy for Scotland to present itself as a country with a good higher education system, welcoming students from all over the world. English students already pay a fee to study here, which makes them different from, say, students from Latvia, Hungary or France (i.e. other EU member states), but a much higher fee might not prove so easy to swallow. We shall have to wait and see. But think about it. Why would a well qualified English student spend £36,000 on a degree at Edinburgh, for instance, when for £27,000 they can get one from Oxford or Cambridge? It will be intriguing to see how the new 'market' for English undergraduates studying in Scotland unfolds, both in terms of quantity (numbers of students) and price (fee levels).

And after all this, the new fee decision at best only fills part of the 'funding gap' faced by the Scottish universities. Where will the rest of the money come from? Well, with the Scottish government firmly set on keeping higher education 'free' to Scottish (and, for the time being, other EU) students, we still await the 'uniquely Scottish solution' that will fill the gap.


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