Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Lick your finger & poke it in the air: tuition fees according to Aaron Porter

"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.


  1. I can well believe what your research uncovered when you spoke to senior HE managers. It would have made sense at the time. However, as I've commented to you before, the massive teaching cuts will have changed the view -- and needs -- of many institutions.

    Universities need to fund teaching somehow, so any market in fees would surely be minimal under these changed circumstances. I can't, therefore, see a truly visible market emerging. Not immediately, at least.

    The 'strict criteria' that we are yet to see may indeed change the game above £6,000, but the draft letter mentioning access agreements and caps hasn't pointed toward anything overly restrictive yet. I guess we just have to wait and see what pans out.

    However, if a clear majority of institutions choose to charge fees above the £6,000 cap, I imagine more restrictions/criteria will be put in place to stop this. This concerns me more than having clear restrictions in the first place, since it's difficult enough changing goalposts with uncertainty. Changes on top of changes in such a short space of time should be avoided, if at all possible.

    As for charging different fees across a range of courses, my own "behind the scenes conversations" suggest this method may prove counterproductive and hugely difficult to implement on that basis. That said, the options (hopefully) available may allow for a compromise of sorts, so I think you make a valid point regarding varying fees within institutions. It may well be a way forward for some universities.

    Alternatively, this may force some universities to consider a more 'specialist' position, turning their focus solely to their strongest areas of teaching and research. Yet this has just as many dangers and becomes an entirely different conversation.

    Nevertheless, with so much happening right now, I'm not discounting any major changes in direction. They may be needed to keep some institutions going in the longer term.

  2. I had the 'pleasure' (use that mildly) of meeting Aaron Porter when I was finishing my studies in July last year. Surrey University has just started a Science/Space programme and he was there to 'look into it.' He came across as a person who knew a whole lot of nothing, personally. How he got 65% of the NUS majority vote I'll never know, but I digress.

    I actually think universities having a range of fees over different courses is a good idea. I do not think it would be hard to implement and gives students a wider choice of where can want to study and more importantly where they can afford to study. If university courses cost more money to run and require more "skill" to teach. Then undoubtedly the fee will be more.

    My only concern is that the higher the fee the more benefits courses have to have. Like guaranteed jobs at the end etc to equate to the cost of having to pay the higher fee in the first place. If not, then it will fail miserably.

    If universities do try charging what they can get away with. Then inevitably they will lose credit and develop a reputation. Although, students have shown in the recent protests to be quite idiotic. On the whole they know what they want out of their future and will know when universities are trying to "rip them off" so to speak.

    Once again Aaron Porter is going on his idea or a hunch and not any known fact.

  3. I'm reading your blog and the White paper and I keep wondering to myself: Why are you asking the students for their opinion on how much they should pay?

    Surely you should be asking the parents who do most of the paying?

    It is not unlikely that a prospective student does not understand the amount his parents can provide for his/her HE education so whether he thinks £5,000 is too high is of little consequence; rather it is perhaps whether his/her parents think it is too high.

  4. @Axel

    Thank you for your comment. You will find that the subject of the White Paper was not asking students but senior managers at a variety of universities.

    More generally, the accurate research for pricing university tuition fees that is recommended targets future students for a very important reason: there are no up-front fees, they are paid by the Government, through the SLC, to institutions and graduates pay these back over time. So parents are not paying fees.

    The advantage of this over most other pieces of 'research' that have been published, such as by Opinion Panel or the NUS (highlighted regularly on this website), is that you are asking future students NOT current students, so achieving a more realistic purchase decision scenario.

    I hope that this clears up any misconceptions.

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