As university fees rise, how can we help would-be students assess whether their degrees will offer real employment prospects – and value for money? Gareth Dent reports.
How much will it cost in fees to study full-time at university from 2012? And will it be money well spent? Most readers of The Independent will know that the figure in most cases will probably be something less than £9,000 a year and that the most sensible answer to the second question is probably “it depends”. It will also be evident that without a clear answer to the first question, it is difficult to answer the second.
Unfortunately, it is pretty difficult to answer the first question because the published fee may not be the same as that eventually paid by the student. We now know, thanks to the Office for Fair Access (Offa), that universities plan to spend just over £600m a year by 2015-16 on “access measures”. That is, activities to encourage wider participation in higher education. The universities will not actually spend close to two-thirds of this sum; rather, they will forego it, as the money is simply returned money to students who have paid fees, either in the form of fee reductions or wider financial support. Nevertheless, this investment in access should be welcomed and it is worth bearing in mind that at £7,800, the average annual fee faced by students will be significantly less than the widely discussed £9,000.
There is clear evidence in the Higher Education White Paper that the Government is uncomfortable about this average fee level and would like to see it decrease. The opening of the HE market to new entrants is perhaps the most obvious example. Endeavouring to bring about greater efficiency in teaching and learning is a highly controversial idea, but it could be that greater competition will drive fee levels downwards. In addition, there is significant potential for alternative models such as open learning and part-time undergraduate courses to make it possible for students to offset some of their future debt by combining learning and earning.
But is access really just about fee levels? Undoubtedly, many families will baulk at the thought of the scale of debt that is going to be associated with higher education. Young people may have a better understanding than their parents of the financial returns to higher education. That, and the lack of viable alternatives, may strengthen their determination to go anyway. The universities’ access measures may bolster their determination still further.
So just what are the universities proposing?