2 March 2015
Whether or not Labour’s decision to weaponise undergraduate tuition fees as an election issue will succeed in the polls, the disruption has already started.
Students in this year’s admissions cycle may be encouraged to defer entry in the hope of incurring lower tuition fees from September 2016 (even though they wouldn’t get any benefit from doing so for at least 20 years after graduating). Some universities are already considering dropping fees for some hard-to-fill courses to pre-empt this risk, even though that could mean delivering those courses at a loss.
Labour’s announcements only compound the turmoil that many institutions are already encountering, projecting them into an open-ended period of uncertainty about the economics of undergraduate education.
Over half of UK higher education providers have experienced falling total student enrolments over the past three or four years. To date the impact of this has been cushioned by the margin of comfort provided by £9,000 tuition fees and the partial protections afforded by student number controls.
Looking ahead, providers can only guess at what their prospective undergraduate business will look like. Already facing the insecurity of falling numbers of 18 year olds and the lifting of quota controls, institutions now have no idea of the revenue that future recruits will bring with them.
In this environment, planning becomes a guessing game. This will, in turn, affect providers’ inclinations and abilities to invest in growth, better provision, staffing and innovations – all of which are vital to stemming the weakening international competitiveness of UK higher education. Battening down the hatches until the situation clarifies will look to many like the safest institutional strategy, with the perverse side effect of actually reducing student opportunities.
The uncertainty is especially bad news for the dozen or more institutions already struggling in the zombie zone, battling a downward spiral of falling student recruitment, financial loses and eroded reserves.
If tuition fees are reduced to £6,000 and they are not compensated for the shortfall, it is difficult to see how some of these providers can survive. The institutions most at risk tend to be those that have a mission to increase local access and opportunities, for example by emphasising foundation, diploma and work-based provision. Their demise would impact disproportionately on under-represented and disadvantaged student groups.
At least as important as these repercussions of the tuition fee wars is the way the political agenda is distracting attention from other crucial issues. These include the catastrophic fall in demand from part-time, work-based and older students, the flatlining of postgraduate numbers and, closely related to that, the apparent ending of year-on-year growth in international student numbers.
Around a third of students are studying part-time, equivalent to around a million or more highly-skilled work-based, mature and postgraduate students. Demand from these groups has dropped catastrophically over recent years, falling to little over half of their past levels. These are the very people on whom industry is relying for growth and competitiveness, and who employers report the greatest difficulties in recruiting.
Home student demand for postgraduate study has been flat over recent years, with provision effectively sustained by strong international demand – there are as many Chinese taught postgraduates in the UK as their domestic counterparts. However, recent reports (for example from Hefce and the British Council) have flagged concerns about future international recruitment in the face of greatly increased competition and huge growth in domestic provision in traditional export markets.
The tuition fee wars offer no solutions to these critical threats, and by deflecting attention elsewhere risk pushing them further down the political agenda.
Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group
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