Universities UK tuition fee impact figures should lead to a discussion about what a university education is for

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August 12, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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So Universities UK published a report recently that is the first proper attempt to analyse the effect of raising university tuition fees from £3000 to £9000 a year. As with any report, their statistics can be twisted and bandied about to make any political point, and so it is necessary to ask some questions about the facts beneath the figures to help understand what they mean. Essentially, the report tells us that tuition fees has meant that university study for the sake of just learning may be dying. That may or may not be a good thing.

First of all, complaints are up by 10%. So having to pay for higher education is making students rightly more demanding about the quality of the product they are receiving, and also might be finding out those tutors who are not doing their jobs properly. This is not a destructive turn of events.

But the headline figure is that compared to the last year without fees, which was 2010-2011, 21.7% less people from the UK were entering higher education. So that’s it right? We can close the book and say that Labour were right, and tuition fees have been the tragedy for a generation of young people that they said it would be?

Well, what would Labour say to the figure that lies beneath that overall number, which is that the percentage of students from the poorest of socio-economic backgrounds entering higher education was 9.8% in 2003 but is 16.7% now? Labour might argue that it was their “widening participation” initiative that was responsible for this, and they are right that it had a positive effect. But amidst the obfuscation that opponents of tuition fees attempted when they were being explained to the public, the fact that those from the poorest backgrounds would be provided with grants and that they are not paid back unless you earn enough to be in the top 60% of earners (ie not poor anymore) meant that a pupil bright enough to go to university would be able to work out that their economic background shouldn’t stop them even with tuition fees.

The decline in people entering higher education can be almost entirely explained by the fall in mature students who are applying to do part-time, non-bachelors and higher education diplomas. So, to put it another way, those people who would like an interesting sabbatical in the middle of their careers to study a subject that does nothing to advance those careers are deciding not to spend too much money on them. Not so much of a tragedy for young people now is it?

In fact, another reason why entrance to universities is down is that entrance to apprenticeships are up by 259% and to vocational courses at colleges of further education by 35%. This concern for what happens after a further education is mirrored by the choice of courses that those who are going to universities are taking: Science, Technology and Maths courses (STEM) courses have seen applications rise by a lot, whilst social studies, philosophical studies, media and film studies are down. So, as the amount students are being asked to pay goes up, the more they are thinking about whether their course increases their employment chances.

Now, what would be a shame is if what this means is that students no longer see university as a place they can go to indulge their love of learning a particular subject. Should we celebrate a policy that means less arts subjects are being studied? Some would argue that the taxpayer shouldn’t be paying for students to “indulge their love of learning”, but isn’t that to misunderstand the point of learning, and of further education. If we let straight figures decide whether tuition fees have been successful then we do need to agree on what university education is for. Is it just for increasing employment chances? I’m not so sure.

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