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Keeping a cap on tuition fees

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UNIVERSITIES UK, the organisation representing the UK’s higher education sector, successfully reignited the debate about student tuition fees this week. With the Government set to review tuition fees later this year, its intervention is timely. The headlines in the national press – ‘University tuition fees “need to rise to £6500”’ (Daily Telegraph), ‘Universities give nod to higher fees’ (Financial Times), ‘Double uni fees to £6k a year plan’ (Daily Mirror), ‘New threat to the middle classes: Universities’ plan to double student fees could leave millions in debt until their 50s’ (Daily Mail) – tell their own, but not necessarily the whole, story.

What Universities UK has done is carry out some financial modelling looking at the impact that changes to the variable fees system, which was introduced in 2006, might have on universities and students. Its report, ‘Changing landscapes: future scenarios for variable tuition fees’ (available at www. universitiesuk.ac.uk) considers a range of future scenarios for variable fees, funding and student support that could apply in England following the Government’s review.

The report considers the implications of different variable fee levels – from maintaining the current situation, where fees are capped at £3000, to an increase in the cap to £5000 or £7000; different mechanisms for fee payment and fee support; and possible bursary and maintenance packages. According to Universities UK, the aim is to make an evidence-based contribution to preparations for the review, and ‘to help universities to make informed judgements about the effect of future fee and funding regimes, and to assess the impact on their own institutions’.

One of the aims of introducing variable tuition fees was to create an ‘economic market’ in higher education in which institutions would compete on price to attract students. In the event, this didn’t happen, because most institutions chose to charge the maximum fees allowable. Among the conclusions drawn by Universities UK is that increasing tuition fees to £5000 a year would effectively maintain the status quo, in that institutions would not start setting differential fees by course and students would behave in much the same way as at present. However, it says, increasing fees above £5000 would lead to more institutions reviewing their practice of setting the maximum fee, particularly for institutions whose students are ‘debt averse’. It also suggests that a tuition fee level of £7000 will make potential students start to change their behaviour and may discourage some from enrolling in higher education

It is impossible to discuss student tuition fees without also considering student debt. This is an issue for students of any subject, but it is more of an issue for those studying, or considering studying, veterinary medicine. A veterinary course is inherently expensive to run; it also lasts longer than many other courses, so tuition fees have to be paid, and debts can accumulate, over a longer period. Added to this, the course is intensive, so there is little opportunity to work part time, and extramural studies requirements leave little scope for work in vacations.

Every three years since 1996, the BVA, in conjunction with the Association of Veterinary Students, has conducted a survey among students at the UK vet schools, in which levels of debt are among the issues considered. The results of the most recent survey, undertaken in 2008, indicate that levels of debt continue to rise, to the extent that among final-year students the average debt exceeded £20,000. These students had not been affected by the introduction of tuition fees in 2006 and students in earlier years of the course expected their debts on graduation to be higher, with those in their second year anticipating an average debt of £29,000. Previous surveys suggest that students in the earlier years of their course tend to underestimate their debt on graduation, which makes these figures all the more worrying.

Concern has been expressed in the profession about the effects of student debt or the prospect of debt on the intake of the veterinary schools, the socioeconomic mix of students and future graduates, and students’ career choices on graduation. There can be little doubt that the need ultimately to repay their debts will affect the career choices of graduates, with repercussions for veterinary employers and areas of activity which may be less lucrative (VR, October 8, 2005, vol 157, pp 429-430). While Universities UK’s report might help inform the debate, it doesn’t really take a mathematical model to work out that increasing tuition fees will make the situation worse.

One can sympathise with universities for wanting to ensure future income, particularly at a time when funding is limited, and they increasingly need to compete internationally. The concern must be that, if the Government does ultimately decide to raise the cap on tuition fees, veterinary activity will be particularly badly hit.

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