HMC: How long before students decide their degree is not worth the rocketing fees universities are charging?

A leading headteacher, who speaks for the largest independent schools, issues a damning attack on the HE sector

Chris Ramsey

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So sixth-form students and the teachers who advise them now have something else to worry about as they face the new academic year: the cost of higher education is about to go up again, probably while most weren’t even looking.

During the summer, three universities – Durham, Kent and Royal Holloway – announced higher fees. For their students, a further £750 at least will be added to their debt. A carefully worded plan cooked up by universities minister Jo Johnson, by which teaching excellence could be rewarded with the right to raise fees, has been gazumped before it even got through Parliament. Indeed, Exeter University announced (again over the summer) that its fees would rise for current students too from next year. Do they really want to be seen as the greedy ones, when this year’s UCAS cycle has shown it’s a buyers’ market? 

Unsurprisingly, the news has attracted plenty of (mainly adverse) comment, with the National Union of Students and the University and College Union to hold a national demonstration in London in November. The stage is clearly set for a debate on the “marketisation” of universities and their fundamental purpose. All the while the Government is still blithely insisting that it will “only allow universities to raise fees if they excel, and we will even consider reducing fees if they are performing badly”.

This all needs untangling for students, who will be looking to their teachers for guidance. Will they feel sufficiently aggrieved by the premature fee rises to back away from those universities? Will other institutions inevitably follow suit? How can students exercise any influence over the “service” they get for their money – and should they even look at higher education in that way?

The last set of fee rises are just not on. As well as loftily ignoring a reasonable government intention, showing disregard for external judgments of their teaching, and appearing to take advantage of the summer break, these universities have committed the marketing gaffe of alienating their own students. Reading that your own university has broken ranks in this way must look like a bit of a betrayal, especially if you are at Exeter. Surely someone in the marketing department will have reminded those at the top of the latest NUS report – 77 per cent of students are apparently worried or very worried about their future debt, and a staggering 56 per cent think their degree will not be worth what they will have paid for it. Sure, applications are rising. But common sense suggests that you shouldn’t make your paying customers feel as though you’ve got them over a barrel. Especially when some at least are tomorrow’s decision-makers.

So how did we get here? Six years after tuition fees were capped at £3,000, the Browne Report proposed a rise to £9,000, with some important since-forgotten riders. Students, the report said, "should not be deterred by debt". Part-time students should be treated fairly. There should be a "student charter" to formalise the rights and expectations agreed by all at university. Above all, Lord Browne was clear that "there should be no single fixed price": universities should charge a range of fees, to provide choice and diversity. 

None of this has happened. Instead, as they might remind us, the NUS pointed out that the previous fee rises had failed to lead to improvements in student satisfaction or quality of experience. 

Fast forward to 2016, and the Government’s plan to allow fee rises as long as universities demonstrate teaching excellence. I believe it to be a fair plan, but it is still fraught with difficult questions. Will the Teaching Excellence Framework be an Ofsted-style model, with cumbersome inspection (a particularly awkward question now that higher education has gone back to being part of the Department for Education)? Will it just be a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise? Above all, will it improve students’ experiences, rather than just validating "acceptable minimum" provision?

Important questions, simply brushed aside by Exeter, Durham, Kent, will no doubt be brushed aside by other universities too.

What does this tell us about the way the HE sector views itself? Is it becoming fundamentally more commercialised? Are universities simply in a fight for survival, especially with Brexit threatening the overseas market? Or are they just realistically pointing to the cost of what is still, let’s not forget, a world-class sector?

Perhaps, once the python has swallowed the pig, £9,250 has been accepted with a shrug of the shoulders and once-a-year rises are the norm throughout our big HE sector, this little storm will seem irrelevant. But I doubt it. Prospective students – our current sixth-formers – need more than ever to consider their options carefully. For many, a strong UK university degree will still be absolutely the right thing – and having criticised Exeter for its fee decision, let me emphasise the admiration I have for it an institution. For others, a free, indeed salaried, degree apprenticeship will be a better option. Looking abroad might be attractive for others. Don’t forget that a UK student can take a degree at Maastricht and be taught every day in seminar groups of a dozen or fewer for €1,984 per year; even an "overseas", full-fee-paying student parts with only €7,000. 

So as teachers in my sixth form gear up for another year of personal statements and university choices, I’ll be suggesting they talk through some tough questions with their pupils. What “services” will they get, how often and how well will they be provided? What extras will they pay for (including clubs and facilities)? How often and how well will they be tutored? 

And, as we take transition from school to university more seriously, it will be interesting to know how many of our graduates decide their degree was not worth the money paid.

Chris Ramsey is headmaster of the King’s School, Chester, and is the HMC’s universities spokesperson

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