Friday, 29 July 2011

Student Fees

With schools breaking up for the summer, many young people will be making the most of a well earned break before they get their exam results in the middle of August. For those who have just taken their A levels, it is a particularly anxious time because the results they get can affect their hopes of going to the university of their choice.

The changes the government brought in regarding tuition fees raised the threshold before students have to repay any contribution to the cost of their fees, so graduates will only start to repay money if they earn over £21,000 per year. In that sense, graduates will have less pressure on their finances than their predecessors. However, it is also true that the overall student contribution to tuition fees, over their working career, has now increased. That is why it is so important that the next generation of students shop around and demand more from universities for less money.

I was disappointed to see so many universities decide to charge the maximum fee possible of £9000 per year. This highest fee was intended to ensure that the very top universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge, were able to maintain their position as international centres of excellence. Higher fees can be justified in such institutions because there is a genuine premium on the career prospects of a graduate leaving Oxford or Cambridge so they will be able to afford it. However, in a lot of other cases, the decision cannot be justified. It looks like some universities charged the highest amount because they regarded it as an issue of status: that, to be perceived as a “top university”, they had to charge as much as possible. This “spend as much as you can” mindset is exactly the sort of backward attitude that bankrupted the nation’s finances over the last decade and students should have no truck with it.

The solution is to increase competition. Earlier this summer, Cornwall College announced that it would be offering degree courses for £6000 per year. Some other universities are charging a full 50 percent more for identical degrees. In the old days, Colleges like Cornwall College could only offer degree courses through a franchise agreement with another university which then used to take a cut for themselves. The government has now decided to open the system up, cut out the middle man and let colleges offer degree courses directly which is good news for students.
Some academics have wailed that this is a “race to the bottom” but it is nothing of the sort. It is just healthy competition. We need students to realise that the universities and lecturers work for them now and students now decide what a course is worth. They should vote with their feet to get the best deal they can.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.