The parent protest

Sue Littlemore looks at recent polling to assess public attitudes towards universities and finds some sobering results. In the context of higher fees, and pressures coming from other places, how the wider public feel about the value of HE and the debts that the next generation are getting in to really matter. Universities may have been protected from public opinion in the past, but as we head towards a general election, politicians are likely to be influenced by the largest of protest groups; parents.
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Call it successful lobbying or call it pushing at an open door; either way on tuition fees English universities are used to getting their own way. In 1998 support from universities helped ease the political controversy and opposition to the ending of free tuition across the UK.

Six years on, and universities made the case, supported by some senior members of the Government, for raising annual fees from £1000 to £3000. That policy came closer to toppling New Labour than opposition to the Iraq war ever did, but, in line with Vice Chancellors’ demands, on January 27th 2004 a parliamentary vote to increase the charges was won by a majority of 5.

Calls for higher fees continued and in 2012 the maximum tripled in England to today’s nine thousand a year.

Along the way student union protests and other dissenting voices have been easily dismissed not least because their predictions, which might have seemed plausible, were wrong. Warnings of a serious downturn in applications didn’t materialise.

True, there has been a significant drop in demand from mature and part time students, but that doesn’t rattle the system. For journalists, university leaders and politicians that`s a low stakes issue compared with the numbers of school and college leaver applicants, especially the most politically sensitive group: those from poorer backgrounds. The numbers have held up.

With some justification, the current Government boasts the present funding system has served higher education well where other public services have felt a tighter grip of austerity.

But that claim is reaching the end of its shelf life. For some months universities have been complaining the fees regime is not inflation proof and now, in addition, the sector faces other financial pressures including cuts.  Hefce’s report on shifts and trends  gives a handy summary:

The overall financial health of higher education institutions in England is good. However, projected sector performance in 2013-14 is not as strong as in the preceding three years, and the most recent forecasts published were made before the Government’s 2014 grant letter announced reductions in HEFCE funding.

How should universities respond?  – Reverting to form and past success, some are once again recalling their sense of entitlement to demand and expect to be allowed to hike their tuition fees. Others follow, not least because they don’t want to be seen as “cheap”.

So will this round of lobbying end so well for universities?  Maybe not.  A new pressure group is gaining ground which university leaders should not ignore. This group’s demonstrations don’t involve eye catching TV news footage, but their less attention seeking resistance makes them more dangerous. It is the quiet and damaging protest of negative public opinion.

Earlier this year a new YouGov/ Guardian poll was published.  It sampled just over 11 hundred parents of 11 to 17 year olds, from all social backgrounds and across all regions of England and Wales, and it carries a sobering message for everyone involved in higher education:

The majority of parents with children in secondary school do not think university degrees are worth the money.

Sixty per cent said the current fees were not good value for money. There was no difference in this attitude between affluent and less well off parents.

Sixty per cent also agreed, ‘Students just can’t afford to go to university these days.’

Even so a large percentage of parents did expect their children to apply to university: sixty three per cent and forty four per cent said it was important to them their own children went.

But it would be unwise to take comfort or look for a hiding place there. Plenty of findings suggested a good deal of scepticism about the gains of going to university.

Asked if the benefits of a high paid job make up for the large debts built up paying for university, no resounding faith in the graduate premium was expressed. Parents were evenly split: 36% said yes; 38% said no.

Half of parents disagreed ‘If you don’t have a degree these days you can’t get a decent job.’

Nearly half (45%) felt apprenticeships were a good route for their children.

Negative public opinion doesn’t often lead to fast change, but it can become a fertile breeding ground for other negative issues.

And so in recent weeks and months we have seen a political and media debate, which not only challenges the ‘more fees, please’ strategy, but other issues which some may regard as untouchable in the current HE system.

For example, the Sutton Trust’s new report on graduate debt received national media coverage. It says today’s students who become higher and middle income earners will be paying back their university debt into their forties and fifties – later than under the previous lower fee system. By higher and middle-income earners the report means professionals like teachers who might have to find an extra £2,500 a year in their middle age. These middle income earners make up a good part of higher education’s ‘core customers’ and university leaders should pay attention to the level of debt they will face.

Growing realisation of the high level of default on fee loans adds to media and political criticism of the existing regime.  Defenders highlight its progressive element, which benefits those who will pay back very little if anything at all. But these are the people who take out huge loans to enter higher education, are relieved of their debt because they end up in poorly paid jobs and for whom the taxpayer picks up the bill. So the ‘it’s progressive’ argument fuels rather than soothes, a public sense that universities deliver poor value for money.

And an issue which has stayed in the background, unaddressed for years is now hitting the popular press and being set against high student fees: Vice Chancellors’ pay. Being known as the new fat cat is not a good public image.

In the Guardian Yougov survey, parents did express views on what universities should do to make themselves more attractive to potential students. They included being clear how individual degree courses improve students’ employment chances; showing  how universities  deliver value for money and explaining how tuition fee income is spent.

Six months ago, it seemed plausible higher education would not be part of anyone’s political campaign. Now it feels any party which can come up with a policy in tune with the public mood could gain some ground.

For universities it might be tempting to dismiss all this while healthy numbers of students are flocking to your campus and George Osborne is allowing you to recruit more. But sustainable funding for the HE sector will need the support of the public and a wise Vice Chancellor will seek out and pay attention to public opinion. You can be sure, as we approach the General Election it’s what politicians will do.

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