On 7th September, I wrote about rumours that Lord Browne will recommend increasing the tuition fee cap and critiqued a lazy and misleading piece of research by the NUS. Having asked current students whether they would be deterred from studying again if fees were £7,000 per year, the NUS unveiled the shocking 'truth' that approximately 70 per cent would be put off.
I shan't go over the failings of the NUS research again as you can read them in my previous post and in a similar article on ConservativeHome; perhaps I was too strident in my criticism at points but I maintain that the NUS is deliberately pulling the wool over the eyes of the public and policymakers by publishing such figures and calling them facts.
It is heartening, therefore, to read this morning a press release from the University of Leicester, who have commissioned some research from OpinionPanel into the same subject. This vastly more robust research rubbishes the NUS survey by revealing that barely 10 per cent of students would be put off my fees of £7,000 and very few more at £10,000.
OpinionPanel have a bit of a chequered history in this area, having been guilty of a poorly executed bit of pricing analysis at the beginning of this year. Nonetheless, despite not being able to gain access to the data and research criteria itself, it does seem that this latest research is sound, in particular because they have asked applicants not current or former students.
Leicester and OpinionPanel say that higher tuition fees will not kill demand for degrees but many universities will be forced to compete on price. This is something that I and others in the industry have been saying for some time. As long ago as March 2009, Universities UK were saying that fees of £5,000 would create negligible loss in demand and up to £7,000, a market of variable fees would begin to appear as demand became more elastic. These £5,000 and £7,000 price tags have become ready reference points for the debate about tuition fees and the Leicester/OpinionPanel research does not depart from the theme.
Leicester's Director of Marketing & Communications, Richard Taylor, said: "The findings of this survey make it clear that if the cap on tuition fees is lifted much higher than £5,000 per year, many universities will find it difficult to maintain their share of preferences from prospective students unless they charge less than the maximum."
It is from these natural, mark-driven variations of demand that variable prices will derive, if universities are permitted them.
The research confirms my assertion that higher tuition fees should not scare students off as long as there are sufficient bursaries and scholarships available and clearly advertised. Leicester's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Bob Burgess, maintains that what is vital is "a comprehensive system of bursaries and scholarships to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds or families with little or no experience of higher education are not disadvantaged." This is crucial and I am confident that Lord Browne's report will contain significant recommendations for reform in this area.
In addition, the 'flight to quality' referred to in the Leicester/OpinionPanel research is based overwhelmingly on the prestige of the institution and course and not on factors like the National Student Satisfaction (NSS) survey. This is a blow to 'middling' universities like the University of Leicester that, although good and occasionally brilliant institutions, cannot compete with the likes of Oxbridge or other ancients and red-bricks in terms of history or reputation.
The Russell Group universities will be raising their dusty, donnish eyebrows with joy at this revelation as it virtually presents them with a blank cheque, knowing that demand for them is relatively price inelastic. Furthermore, these older, research-intensive universities have an oligarchich control over medical schools in this country, which this report highlights as the most immune to fee increases.
Some hope for the less prestigious, newer universities lies in the fact that several of them possess world-class niche expertise. If they can demonstrate this well enough to the market then the most premium price tags should not be out of their reach, even if lesser courses will have to be reduced relatively in price or dropped entirely.
For instance, the University of Leiceter's School of Management is ranked 2nd in the country for business and management studies - second only to Oxford. Even relatively lowly institutions like the University of Worcester, ranked outside the top 100 universities, possess USPs such as the the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit (NPARU), from which all of the UK's pollen forecasts are generated.
In summary, the Leicester/OpinionPanel research sends out two chief messages.
First, higher tuition fees (backed up by well advertised scholarships and bursaries) will not deter potential students in their hundres of thousands, as much as the NUS would like us to believe. That trades union has assumed a mantel of extreme intransigence and arrogance on the issue, unwilling to countenance even a shred of evidence contrary to their stance. The response by the University of Leicester's Student Union to the research did not address the findings head-on in any way; instead their spokesperson trotted out the politburo line about student debt.
Secondly, higher fees will necessitate a market in higher education if institutions outside of the most prestigious elite are to survive as independent, valued universities of expert study and research. Raising the cap to £7,000 or more will be futile if universities are not allowed to vary fees across courses. Only in this way can they stand out from the crowd and let their core expertise shine.
After all, the University of Worcester is never going to send forth the country's finest history graduates. But it might work out how to save our honey bees.