Revealing admissions

12th August 2005 at 01:00
Over the next 12 months, it will be difficult to avoid the story of English university fees and admissions. Journalists, politicians, parents, students and universities themselves will keep the story in the headlines as the new fees system takes effect. The success or otherwise of the system will be a major test for the Government.

The action starts on September 1 when the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) starts accepting entries for 2006-07. A month later, the Department for Education and Skills will launch a major advertising campaign to dispel myths about higher education costs and benefits. This campaign may pass some TES readers by because it will be aimed at the "16-19 youth media", but those with teenage children or tastes will see it. College staff will inevitably see other communications campaigns, for example from individual universities or from Universities UK, the vice-chancellors' association.

UCAS admissions are a major activity in colleges because more than 40 per cent of higher education entrants come from the sector. As the January 2006 admissions deadline looms, the questions will become more complicated - not just what subject or which institution, but how and where to get the best bursary deal.

Bursaries will attract interest because, by and large, higher education will not be competing on fees. Almost all universities say they will charge Pounds 3,000 a year for their full-time degrees. Lower fees will be found only in colleges or part-time courses. Also, while fees will be paid some time in the future, bursaries will be cash during study.

Putting bursaries together with higher students' loans and grants will create an attractive package for some students. The director of the Office of Fair Access, Professor Sir Martin Harris, says the financial deal for young people from poor families with good A-levels will be better than it has been for 40 years. Students getting more than pound;12,000 in financial support will be a small minority, but hundreds of thousands of students will be better off in the short term in 2006.

The higher education admission cycle could get really interesting as we pass summer 2006 and approach the start of the term. The matching process between institutions and students is not perfect, leaving some courses short of numbers. At this point, institutions will find the constraints of fee transparency and regulation prevent them doing what a company might do in their situation.

It will be hard for a university or college to drop its price or increase its bursary to attract last-minute students. At the same time, UCAS rules prevent applicants from changing their minds about a university offer they have accepted to shop for a better deal. At least one vice-chancellor has said this rule is unsustainable and market forces will destroy university solidarity. Something else to watch.

Moving into autumn 2006, the impact of the higher education market will be watched closely. The rewards of extra income bring new risks of getting pricing, marketing and, ultimately, the budget wrong. The Government will be tempted to intervene. If so, let's hope any intervention is cheap. The higher education reforms have already cost a lot of money.

The place of colleges in the new world is also uncertain. Apart from their role in equipping students to get to university, they also educate one in 10 higher education students, taking full- and part-timers together. The fees market has not yet caused significant damage to franchise arrangements between universities and colleges, but could still do so.

Fees regulation certainly makes franchises more complicated. Some colleges will charge pound;3,000 for their full-time courses. Others will try to carve out an alternative position, charging less but offering just as much.

One challenge for colleges will be what to do about part-time higher education courses. The Government has placed its bets on full-time courses, leaving part-time students with up-front fees and few grants.

After a couple of rounds of the new system, all parties will make their cases to the independent review scheduled for 2009. The compromises agreed to get the bill through Parliament left university reform in an unstable equilibrium, not forgetting the complications created by different fee regimes in Scotland and Wales.

The first questions for the review and for the political debate surrounding it will focus on higher education, but perhaps it is time to look wider. Is it right to put so much government funding into full-time residential education for the minority of young adults who get good A-levels if this leaves so little for everyone else, later in life?

Top-up fees will add as much as 20 per cent to universities' teaching income in 2006. At the same time, the financial settlement for the Learning and Skills Council could produce cash cuts of up to 10 per cent for adult learning in colleges. One explanation for the limits on government funding in 2006 is the cost of the higher education reforms.

The post-19 world is clearly moving towards higher fees. But if one thing can be learned from the university experience so far, it is that higher fees work best when backed by government advertising and student loans.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development for the Association of Colleges

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