We’re upping fees, say universities, because we’re worth it

28 August 2016
Posted by Heidi Salmons

The Sunday Times, 28.08.16, HMC Head Chris Ramsey, headmaster of leading independent The King’s School, Chester and university spokesperson for HMC on why Universities have a downright cheek to hike their fees before demonstrating improvements in teaching quality.

The hundreds of thousands of teenagers who picked up their GCSE results this week might be forgiven for thinking they’ve had enough pressure for one year. Sadly, for those stepping up to sixth form or higher education, a new problem has emerged. University fees are on the rise again.

Quietly — some might say stealthily — universities from Durham and Exeter to Kent and Royal Holloway are hiking their prices from next year, adding at least a further £750 to their students’ debts. For teachers advising students, and for parents and students themselves, this is a jolt — another unexpected factor to take into account when choosing the next stage of education. Why are the universities doing this now, who else will follow, and where will it all lead?

In short, these universities are doing it because they can (just). Many others are likely to follow. The catalyst is a higher education bill that would allow universities who demonstrated improved teaching quality to charge higher fees. However, the bill is not yet law, and the new framework does not yet even exist. But some universities are putting up their fees anyway, presumably in the lofty assumption that their teaching is really rather good already. It’s a downright cheek.

To be fair, we all know that universities have to be funded, and by and large the public has accepted that tuition fees — certainly in England — are here to stay. But few believed we would get to this level this quickly, especially given the added concerns around interest rates and the abolition of grants. We also know that costs rise in line with inflation, and let’s face it, independent school fees have risen above that rate.

But that last fact is not the same thing. Leading independent schools have demonstrably improved their service by generating fantastic A-level and GCSE results, providing better pastoral care and more opportunity. We live and die by the quality of our teaching and generally don’t also charge for use of facilities, as some universities mysteriously do. And crucially, we aren’t predominantly government-funded subsidised institutions to which there is no free alternative.

How have universities got themselves into this situation?

The current £9,000 fee was introduced in 2012. Importantly, it was supposed to be the upper limit, charged only when universities met stringent criteria relating to access. It had already been raised once, from £3,290 to £6,000, with the then education minister David Willetts imagining that market forces would lead to a range of fees depending on where institutions saw themselves in the market.

Surprise, surprise, they all saw themselves at the top. As with the football transfer market, where “groundbreaking” £30m transfers were headline news two years ago and are now laughably routine, the floodgates have opened and everyone has rushed through.

Still, no university should expect to have to live with its fees frozen for ever. Vice chancellors have made that point repeatedly over the last five years, and last year our current minister, Jo Johnson, came up with a plan. There would be a new Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that, once established, would force universities to focus on teaching (one wondered why they hadn’t before), after which they would be allowed to raise fees further. The cynics said that the TEF was simply a mechanism to allow fees to rise. It seems they were right.

Scarcely had the technical consultation on the TEF been launched when Durham and co were out of the blocks with their new fee. Indeed, Exeter has announced with considerable chutzpah that its fees will rise for current students too.

How, a pupil asked me, are they allowed to do this? Technically, these universities had applied and were eligible for the first year of the TEF, meaning they can go through on the nod with minimum data and no external assessment, raising fees “in line with predicted inflation”’ (my italics) to £9,250 — as long as the White Paper is passed.

The universities have appeared to take advantage of that tricky summer period when no one is looking, (and indeed this year the minister was moving departments). It goes against the academic principle that you don’t assume your own excellence, and it appears to prove the cynics right in their view that universities were all along straining at the leash to get more cash from students.

I think that it is rather foolish. Do Exeter and Durham really want the reputation of being “greedy” universities at a time when it is essentially a buyers’ market?

This must feel like a breach of contract to students of these institutions, especially the Exeter ones, and most sadly it makes a mockery of the TEF, which already — like Uefa’s Fair Play rules — begins to look like a box-ticking exercise that, instead of improving standards, will lead to all our universities, regardless of quality, getting an extra £750 per bum on seat. For a medic or a vet, another £1,000 can be added to the bill.

Visits to universities overseas are increasingly providing tempting food for thought: a British student can study at Maastricht for €1,984 (£1,691) a year and be taught pretty much every day in seminar groups of a dozen or fewer. Of course, government subsidies are higher, but note that Maastricht’s “overseas” fee — the fee it charges when the student will come with no subsidy at all — is €7,500 (£6,393). It can, in other words, provide one of the best higher education experiences in Europe for 71% of Exeter’s current (let alone new) fee.

The first student from King’s Chester will be packing her bag and heading for Maastricht in September.

So what should we take from this as Ucas season re-opens? You might ask yourself whether institutions that grab the new fee before they are judged on their teaching really have a commitment to developing it. Or do they simply think they cannot possibly have anything to improve? You might also consider what other hidden charges the universities operate and, after calculating what two or three more years of £250 increases will add to your student loan, ask hard questions about what you will get from it.

I hope that the leaders of the universities who have raised their fees have good answers.

Read more © The Sunday Times