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University Challenges of Cash, Costs, Worth and Perceptions

Is a Degree Worth It All? - Mike Knell

As UK universities start another academic year, the horizon is still smoking from the rows about debt and financing. But those aren’t the only issues.

Just ahead of the November 2010 disturbances/demonstrations, Education Editor of The Daily Telegraph, Graeme Paton wrote that the cost of a degree had ‘tripled in 20 years’. That was before the increase to £9000 a year that the demonstrators were protesting about.

Paton’s figures were average £6360 a year tuition and accommodation, compared with £1545 in the late 1980s, which was higher than the rise in family incomes over the same period, taking into account parental contributions and grants/loans. The debate centred, and still does, on ‘pricing students out of university education’.

Always Complications

Figures of potential future graduate debt fluctuated wildly, depending on the side of the ideological fence the commentator was sitting. £30,000 was a modest estimate, but the British Medical Association (BMA) argued that medical graduates would be even more harshly affected, clocking up average debts of around £70,000.

UK International Business Times’ Thomas Costello reported (September 2011) that Edinburgh University was set to charge English, Welsh and Ulster students £36,000 a year, thus stoking further the row about Scottish institutions targetting students wanting to flee high fees south of the border.

High-chargers point to their bursaries for financially-challenged and especially gifted, reductions they face in government funding, and that many universities in Scotland (St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde) are rising up the university league tables. Tuition fees entered the political circus rather than educational debate, when the Scottish Nationalists won control of the Scottish Parliament in May 2011 and made the fee decision.

The situation is made worse by the fact that Scottish students in England, Wales or Ulster will not have to pay even the proposed £9000 maximum through an EU loophole, but the legality of that is subject to court rulings, triggered by some English students.

The Pricing of Degrees

In April 2011, Neil O’Brien, director of think tank, Policy Exchange, wrote in The Daily Telegraph that ‘the market should decide the price of a degree’. He didn’t think most universities would charge the maximum £9000, because students from less affluent backgrounds would be spared the full amount and many institutions who’d like to charge the most, wouldn’t attract enough students.

He called this a ‘brave new world’ for universities as they set real prices for the first time. After initial teething problems, he thought they’d settle down. Discounted last-minute courses were not desirable to fill spaces, because those who had paid full whack would complain. Credibility mattered to university management.

The new arrangements mean nothing is paid upfront; the state loans money to buy tuition. The whole cost will never be paid back; the bottom-earning third will pay less than now, despite higher fees. Those who go into paid employment will repay on incomes above £21,000. Uncleared debt 30 years after graduation will be cancelled.

Lord Browne, who proposed the original student financing reforms, argued money should follow students so best courses expand, weaker ones wither. He suggested a ‘big bang’, all-at-once approach, but that was not favoured, transition was to be smoother. Time was needed for mergers, departments to be wound down.

O’Brien felt Browne’s free market ideas should still be worked towards, and was struck that larger universities such as London Metropolitan (more students than either Oxford or Cambridge) plan to charge £6-7000, with less on some courses. ‘If students want to pay more, that’s up to them’. He said that if universities believed their teaching was worth it, then they should try to attract students, many with parents angered at a mere hour or two teaching/seminar/tutorial per week.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski wrote on A Univerity Blog (Sept 2011) that whatever is the government upper limit, that will be what universities charge. Universities were caught in the trap of having to charge more to justify their reputations, so ‘pricing a university is now seen as brand marketing, rather than determining a genuine cost structure’.

He was opposed to institutions pricing products on market expectations, as they are ‘neither public service bureaucracies nor not-for-profit commercial entities’. He did, though, concede that universities needed to be more transparent about costs and quality.

Is It Worth It?

In January 2011, BBC News reported Office for National Statistics (ONS) data that showed graduate unemployment had doubled during the recession, graduate jobs were up but more were competing for them (83 per job, it was guessed), and 20% of graduates entering the jobs market in 2010 failed to find one.

The figures painted a grim picture for people who had worked through a degree course and incurred debt (in most cases) to achieve it. After all the pride and optimism of the graduation ceremony, they were less likely to secure work than non-graduates. The National Union of Students (NUS) quoted graduate applicants facing ‘a hostile market’.

Despite that, Resolution Foundation, another think tank, published a September 2011 social mobility report, that warned employees without a degree are more likely to move down the pay scales, compared with a decade ago. GCSEs and A levels were worth less in social mobility than higher academic training.

While debate about degree worth continues, stay-home undergraduate numbers rise and the future of universities as brick and glass structures in a cyber-economy is uncertain, a thought about Brits who made it without degrees: Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Michael Caine, Sir John Major, David Beckham, Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, Lord Alan Sugar and Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas!

Of course, none of them was without ability, skills, talent and good senses of timing.

First published on Suite 101, 7 September 2011

Image: Is a Degree Worth It All? – Mike Knell

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