|"Fees? They'll be this big...."|
The BBC is carrying an article in which NUS president Aaron Porter claims that "most degrees will cost £9,000".
Of course, the BBC can't just refer to him as the NUS president - he must be qualified as the "articulate" NUS president. Sadly, the adjective fits. Aaron is articulate. He can be charming and persuasive. He probably is also a "moderate", as described - but when others in your much-vaunted student protest movement are going to prison for throwing fire extinguishers off buildings at police officers, or climbing on and defacing the Cenotaph, that is no tall order.
Yet in terms of public announcements about possible tuition fee levels, Porter veers from the ignorant to the ludicrous to the downright reckless. In the past, the NUS has been guilty of irresponsible and flawed market research. At least that was based on a semblance of quantitative analysis and a verified sample, however amateur in construction. Porter's latest analysis is based on little more than "behind the scenes conversations."
What an extraordinary basis for an announcement of this sort, even from a NUS president. Porter also suspects, "50%, 60%, 70% are going to charge £9,000." Quite the margin of error, but then getting out and about and having a chat with someone is an inexact science so we should not be too harsh.
Like Aaron, in the last couple of years I have shared my own "behind the scenes conversations" with people in the HE sector. As a management consultant, my colleagues and I travelled around the country and met university executives to discuss strategy, marketing and, most importantly, pricing. We spoke to universities from all parts of the sector about their approaches to pricing, market research and the Browne Review. Last summer, in conjunction with other HE specialists, we published a White Paper, 'How prepared are English universities for a more deregulated tuition fees?'
This research was conducted with senior managers from a wide variety of pre- and post-1992 universities. When asked about optimal levels for their own institutions, there was a clear preference for fees below the £7,000 level. A fee of between £6,000 and £7,000 was the most frequently selected by pre-1992 universities, although an equal proportion were comfortable with fees above this level. By contrast, all but one of the post-1992 respondents considered a level up to £5,000 or £6,000 as optimal.
University executives, in my experience, have a good grasp of who their students are and what their marketplace can sustain. There is an element of truth in a sticker price being a mark of quality. In our research, we identified some concern amongst post-1992 institutions about how they would communicate their value propositions and protect their brand if they were not able to price at the top end of the fees threshold.
Yet charging "what they can get away with", as Porter suggests, also means taking into account the marketplace. If a university finds, via scientific pricing research, that what they can get away with before participation falls off a cliff is £6,000 or £7,500, that is as far as they can go. Universities might increasingly look and feel like businesses (they certainly pay their vice-chancellors accordingly) but they do not truly think like businesses.
Even if Porter is right, and 50%, 60% or 70% (take your pick, he can't) of institutions do decide to charge the maximum £9,000, it is highly unlikely that they will do so across their range of courses. The Times' Good University Guide (£) ranks Queen Mary outside the elite institutions at 36th, yet mentions that "linguistics, geography and drama produced the best results in their fields." Lancaster University has average-to-good results across the board but excels in terms of teaching and satisfaction, whilst it has the best physics results in the country. Many universities have special areas of expertise, for which a premium can be charged. If 70% of them are charging £9,000 for just a couple of courses, why is that a problem, as long as it means the necessary financial support is there?
Which brings me to my final point, and the one that the NUS' simplistic view simply doesn't grasp. If a university is charging up to £9,000 then according to the Government (details to be confirmed in the upcoming White Paper), that university must justify it by meeting very strict access criteria.
I suggest that the NUS president licks his finger and pokes it in the air once more. See which way the wind is blowing: towards a sustainable future for universities and students in this country, not towards an unrealistic distant past. It is a nostalgia that we might both share but that only one of us sees for what it is: nostalgia.