Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fees for English Students Studying in Scotland

Today the newspapers reported that Aberdeen University had officially decided to set the fees for new English undergraduates wanting to study at the University at the highest permitted level, namely £9000 per year, from academic year 2012-13. However, the pain is alleviated somewhat by the supermarket-like offer of four years for the price of three. In other words, the total fee for the standard four-year undergraduate degree will be capped at 'just' £27,000. My own and other Scottish institutions will no doubt be announcing similar decisions quite soon. And one can see why. Money is tight, the Scottish government is not really in a financial position to pay up to the extent that institutions need, and where else are we supposed to find the money?

That said, making the new fees stick might not prove straightforward.

For one thing, even before the Aberdeen decision, the idea of charging higher fees to English students was already facing a legal challenge on the grounds that it might contravene various sections of our anti-discrimination and/or human rights legislation. Not being a lawyer, I have no idea what to make of such claims. My instinct is not to be very sympathetic, but we shall have to see what the courts eventually determine. Interesting!

For another, even if the legal issues do not prove too troublesome, there is the issue of market forces. Will English students be willing to pay Aberdeen's proposed fees in sufficient numbers to make the decision worth while? Since, just as in England, students will not have to pay fees up front, the initial burden will not be a problem; however, after graduation, student loan repayments start once the graduate is earning £15,000 per year, whereas in England this threshold has already been raised to £21,000. So in due course, unless the schedules are amended, English students graduating from Scottish universities will face a rather steeper repayment scheme than those who remained in England. However, I doubt whether such arcane details will make a big difference to many potential students.

More important, in the longer term, will be two other factors: (a) the size of the cohort of (mostly young) people ready to go to university in a given year; and (b) potential students thinking harder than they have had to hitherto about the prospective costs and benefits of their higher education.

On the first point, we already know from population projections that the relevant age cohort will be falling in the next few years, so unless universities can attract more older students to enrol (or even pensioners?), the total demand for university places across the UK can be expected to decline quite regardless of any pricing issues. No doubt the fall in demand will not be distributed evenly across all institutions, so one can expect that a few will face really severe recruitment, and hence funding problems. Whether any of these will be in Scotland, we don't of course know yet, but we are hardly in a position to exclude such a possibility. Falling demand will certainly sharpen up the competition between institutions for the best students (in some cases, for any students!), something that might lead to some re-thinking about fee levels.

On the costs and benefits point, I'm not sure how far young people (or their parents) think this through. I know I never did myself, but then in my day few people went to university, all fees and living expenses were paid by the state (so one graduated with no debt), and good - graduate-level - jobs were pretty easy to find. Nowadays, the government wants around half the relevant age group to go to university, but is unwilling or unable to fund that in the way that used to happen; and the job market has changed beyond recognition. There are still lots of graduate-level jobs around, but one reads of many new graduates struggling to find their first job, and apparently around a quarter of graduates are doing jobs that don't call for a degree in any case. All this makes the cost-benefit balance less attractive, and over time, some students (and their families) might take the view that getting a job at age 18 is a better bet than going to university.

For the economy, that might not be so bad, but it would obviously not be great for some of our universities. The universities that thrive under these tougher conditions will, I suspect, be of two main types: first, the academic leaders that deliver the very highest intellectual standards; and second, the institutions that do the best job in terms of offering programmes with strong pathways into the world of work.

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