In light of the recent rise in tuition fees, what does the future hold for British Universities? Here's one take on the future for further education.

We are two years on from the highly controversial tripling on caps for tuition fees for University degrees. Across the spectrum of courses offered in England a student is likely to pay £27,000 for a degree and possibly £36,000 for a scientific one, even without counting the interest on top.

In 2010 the government, in an attempt to appease outraged potential students, claimed that the £9,000 fees would only be charged at the most prestigious Universities and the most specialist degrees. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case as most universities jumped on the bandwagon and set their tuition fees at £9,000 per year. This angered students as demonstrations broke out. And, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats metaphorically ended up with egg on their face, and literally with blue paint on Mr. Clegg’s jacket.

What has this meant for University participation?

Well, it depends who you believe. UCAS claimed that in the first year of the new tuition fee pricing structure applications were down by 8.7%. Other sources have suggested that since tuition fee rises, university applications could be down as much as 12%. Furthermore, there are suggestions that in the academic year 2012/2013, universities fell short of recruitment targets by approximately 30,000. After years of University applications and University placement fulfilment steadily rising, this is still a massive shock to the system for many Universities.

The University of Birmingham, amongst others, have turned to offering some unconditional offers to students before they have finished their A-levels (or equivalent), so they actually can fulfil their targets with the best students. However, offering seventeen year olds entry into University on these terms is potentially a slippery slope.

If universities fail to meet their targets for new university entrants, they will not have the financial resources they need. Universities will have to cut back on expansion and improvement. This may mean that the quality of lecturing could decrease as could the quality of research. If this trend is to continue, could Britain begin to lose its status as one of the leading centres for higher education and research study? Well, with less money they cannot improve as quickly as competitors from abroad. Plus, a greater proportion of the money they do have will now have to be spent on bigger recruitment drives. Bear in mind that the universities are not benefitting greatly from the tripling of tuition fees. The £9,000 fees are largely to compensate for the investment they are not receiving from the government.

In simple economic terms, for years demand has been high and supply has aimed to catch up. This included upgrading the old polytechnics into fully functioning Universities because getting a university degree was so desirable. However, many potential students have been priced out of the market and do not believe that further education is worthwhile with the new tuition fees. Therefore, there has been a shift in the equilibrium and now for some universities demand for the places is struggling to meet their supply. The top ‘red brick’ universities are absolutely fine as a market leader due to their reputation and the overall quality offered, but those that are further down the rankings may struggle to attract students.

So what is going to happen moving forward?

Obviously, the change in tuition fees is still a relatively new occurrence and the full effect on universities may take years to fully understand. However, here are some possibilities as to what the future may hold for higher education:

The government buckles and starts increasing funding to Universities again – Bear in mind that universities contribute £3.4 billion a year to the economy through services to business. If the government, especially if it is under Labour, believes that Britain will lose its position as a super-power within higher education they may start re-investing in universities and research.

Unfortunately, I believe this is unlikely to happen. Due to the stupidly low turnout rate for 18-24 year olds at elections, there is not a great incentive for a government to introduce this policy to gain political support. Furthermore, standards amongst top universities are unlikely to drop so far that the government feels it needs to take drastic action.

A decline in the arts? - £9,000 per year for what often feels like a glorified library card! Many degree subjects have few contact hours and little specialist equipment. Therefore, students of these arts subjects do not receive good value for money compared to more scientific degrees.

This trend is already occurring as many seek value for money and more specific scientific skills, which a BSc is more likely to offer. This may not be considered a bad thing and the government are continuously expressing a need for more scientists, medics, etc. However, with funding also heavily available for science degrees we are in danger of neglecting the arts and creative development. To me, this seems like a bit of shame.

The less established universities will have to lower their tuition fees – If we go back to the supply and demand argument, the universities which are considered less favourably will have to lower their price to boost demand. If not lower the price, restructure their courses from the traditional 3 or 4 year degree courses offered currently. There is no reason why certain courses cannot be taught over a two year period, maybe with less than five months of vacation time that students are accustomed to each year.

This will happen in the near future. Less highly regarded universities panicked into raising tuition fees to £9,000 per year because they wanted to follow suit with everyone else. Over time this will settle down and higher education institutions will compete on price and duration of the qualification, as well as quality. Unfortunately for all you History and English enthusiasts, there seems little chance that pricing will vary dependent on contact hours and resources used within a specific subject, especially at the top universities.

The worst performing and least desirable universities will lose University status – Potential students are really thinking about whether they want to go to University or not nowadays. The mentality that it is all about getting ‘lashed’ and having copious amounts of sex for three years is fading. Therefore, the least desirable universities offering what some employers would consider less academic degrees are not going to have the demand they used to. Without the funding needed for improvement and high performance, will they be able to keep their university status?

Some universities losing their status and becoming specialist colleges will actually be a good thing. As colleges they will not be restricted so much by university norms and practices. They can offer good quality courses in subject areas that they can excel in. As for many institutions losing their universities status, I think this could quite feasibly happen, especially if there is a major national rethink on higher education in the next few years.

At this point, it is far too early to tell exactly what is going to happen. However, there are some worrying trends to do with participation and funding, which may cause a big change in higher education in Britain. The tuition fees were increased massively and have already had big implications, but people are still paying and having the right university degree is still a very desirable attribute. Maybe nothing will change and people will accept that quality education costs money. However, what universities must realise is that this is turning into a consumer-led market, which means that they will have to raise their game. If higher education continues on its path, many universities and even some subject areas will become unsustainable and will face a very rocky road ahead.


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