Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Bad tuition fees research obscures the bigger higher education debate. Again.

The most depressing thing about the higher education debate in this country is how woefully uninformed the public is.

The NUS and corollary protesting groups focuses their campaigning almost exclusively on one issue - tuition fees for full-time undergraduate domestic students - when 40 per cent of its students (and by logical extension of that, many of its own members) study part-time so will benefit hugely from the Government's scrapping of up-front fees for part-time students.

Yet they can't even be trusted to represent one issue properly.  First, the NUS has been using language that deliberately instils misguided fear in students' minds, for instance by only framing the increase as fees of £9,000, whereas the Government is actually increasing fees to £6,000 and permitting universities to charge up to £9,000 in exceptional circumstances and under strict access criteria.  Secondly, the NUS and certain Labour MPs have been describing the £9,000 fee level as a 300% increase, which it isn't (it is less than 190%).  That's just sloppy maths.

What is abominable maths and far more invidious is the habit of several organisations in recent years to publish shambolicly amateur market research that claims to reveal what future students would or would not pay for a degree.  The NUS has been guilty of this in the past and the latest culprit is Aimhigher, the organisation that runs schemes to encourage poorer students to apply to universities.

Reported today by the BBC, Aimhigher claims that less than a third of young people would be willing to pay £9,000 per year in fees.  Give them their due, they have at least been asking future students as opposed to current students - the error committed by most previous surveys.  Yet they have not framed it as a proper purchasing choice.  As I've already stated the deficiencies of such studies enough before (see here and here), I won't rehearse the arguments, other than repeat that if organisations are going to produce these surveys and put them into the public domain, they need to be done properly and according to robust methodologies.  Publishing this sort of 'research' is plainly irresponsible.

Aimhigher, which has received £250 million of funding since 2008, is being cut next year.  This has, of course, attracted criticism but it shouldn't matter when you consider that a key part of the Government's reforms is to do away with Offa's minimum bursary requirement and have universities go on the road to low aspiration and low attainment schools.

It is yet another important part of the package that is being drowned out by the shrill, myopic obsession with tuition fees for full-time undergraduate UK students.


  1. This post (omitting the Aim Higher part) has pretty much summed up what I have been saying to my younger sister's friends who want to go to university. One of them really annoyed me when she said "Well The Sun's close source said...". Don't get me started on sources or close sources for that matter. Just a load of nonsense.

    I can't comment fully on the student fees as I had 2/3 of my degree paid for by the NHS so I cannot complain. I have come out with very little debt and have a career for life. My only worry is if people choose to take up a vocational degree (i.e nursing, social work etc) and the university does increase their fee to £9,000 then it will dramatically decrease numbers in the profession in the future. However, by the looks of it many higher education facilities are sticking at the £6,000 cap mark.

    I have to admit though I am kind of pleased the student fees have been increased. There are some people who do degrees in 'Anthropology' or 'Sociology' and I just think "Great! What are you going to do with it?" - higher education is exspensive and it needs to be to if it is going to gain a future workforce. But I'm sorry unless your're rich and find it that INSANELY interesting then 'Anthropology' or any 'ology' for that matter won't get you far unless you do other courses (which cost more money!). I kind of hope it acts as deterrent in some ways and reduces all this student debt.

    Speech over (sorry if I have gone off the subject a bit) . Have a lovely Tuesday evening =]

  2. Sir,
    I have been arguing at length, sometimes less at length with some peers and few seem to be able to grasp the idea that education costs and so someone must pay. It seems to be a sort of mental deficiency which I would once have adhered to and now thankfully am waking up from.

    (I have had Facebook arguments cut short by frayed tempers and the ever so condescending "we have different world views so it's not going to get solved")

    I must say your posts on this subject have been enlightening. I read them avidly.

    Please continue.