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Tighter finances will impact students. Should we warn them?

How efficient can higher education become before a quality line is crossed? Jim Dickinson considers the problem of students paying more when government offers less.
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

One of the exercises I’ve been running for new student leaders over the summer surrounds attitudes to and understanding of England’s undergraduate tuition fee system.

It’s your classic in-person Likert – where participants move around a room on an agree/disagree axis in response to a series of statements.

One statement has been variations on the theme of fees needing to increase to improve or protect the student experience. In response I always get a near-universal “no”.

Another has been variations on the theme of maintenance loans needing to increase to ensure that students can have a decent experience or just cope with the cost of living crisis. In response I always get a near-universal “yes”.

In many ways of course, the two questions are basically the same, but partly because I suspect that I would get the same reactions if I asked any cross section of the public other than university finance directors, I think the extreme differences in reaction are a big problem for the sector.

Years of complacency around telling students (and indeed the public) where the money goes is now back to bite. Students – and by proxy their parents – don’t think universities need the money.

And that means that if there is any money, most people and most politicians would likely prioritise student financial support – which has in effect been cut by £2,000 in real terms for the poorest in England in the past few years.

Who pays for increased pay

So when I say this I’m not apologising for vice chancellors nor am I trying to diminish the case for inflationary uplifts for staff pay. But I don’t see how staff pay can reach the unions’ goals without increased fees. And I both can’t see any government going there in general, and certainly not before it fixes maintenance.

If we’d have remained in the current system, doubling fees would only have impacted the richest grads in 28 or so years’ time. That the sector has been unable to get an increase under that system is devastating. Because in the future – when the loan is written off after 40 years not 30 and so increases will impact more ordinary graduates – it will be much much harder to argue for increased fees.

Imagine if the government was to announce a £500 uplift in fees without a commensurate uplift on the maintenance loan. Even if it was £1,000 more debt with £500 going to each side, there would be a massive uproar.

This is partly a product of the system we have. A relatively progressive scheme looked politically awful in 2010 because the public saw the tripling of fees and assumed that the contribution from graduates was tripling. Now over a decade on, no government will be stupid enough to make the same mistake – and so gets away with a state-graduate financing partnership where students will pay more, the state puts in less, and nobody notices.

The reaction from most student leaders to the stealth changes to student loans and the money to be spent on their education isn’t so much that they lament they’ve lost the argument – it’s that it was never held in public for them to have. Fostering the kind of student citizenship we imagine that HE provides surely starts with a public discussion on fees and funding – and a need to be honest about what happens if the money isn’t there.

But as well as the quality of debate, we do have to think about the emergent quality of provision. The savings that the government has managed to make means things are very difficult indeed for “fiscally responsible” Keir Starmer. But for the sector, whatever the politics, the next few years provide only one option if the core domestic unit of resource continues to be frozen – and that’s to become more “efficient”.

Eat my goals

“Efficiency” is the go-to goal for politicians everywhere. It sounds good, taps into often misplaced perceptions or signals of bloat, and allows expenditure to be focussed on actual political priorities.

But it also is frequently fraught with problems. Sometimes what looks like “extra” capacity is the slack you need in a crisis, or the tasks that get done that you forgot were important. Sometimes people are passionate about things in ways that metrics don’t account for – ask any MP who’s fought the closure of a local hospital even though care might be better if further away but more centralised. And insidiously, if you’re not careful it’s hard to notice cuts going too far until it’s too late – and often almost impossible to draw a line until well after it’s obviously been crossed.

Of course, coping with less money per head is happening already, so it’s worth thinking about how providers are coping already to identify what it might tell us about the next five years or so.

  • Some courses will be “demand smoothed” – increasingly students won’t get any of their first module choices. They’ll have to move to less popular pathways. In other cases, module choices will reduce – either through redundancy schemes or not replacing staff that leave.
  • Some will identify modules, pathways or programmes that are expensive to teach and/or recruiting low numbers – and close them. Some will collapse those pathways into bigger pools to manage demand fluctuation and pressures – to get more students through for the costs involved.
  • Some universities will take too much advantage of PGT demand from growing markets like India and Nigeria too soon, playing fast and loose with quality in the process. In some towns and cities, those students will have nowhere to live, and the personal tutor system will be less a policy, and more a pipe dream.
  • Some universities will manage that demand by “teaching” (when what we really mean is “broadcasting”) largely online, and supervising the dissertations by recruiting staff for a fixed fee per student. Even with on costs, £500 a dissertation results in quite the margin if the fee is £20,000.
  • Some will do what I would call a TK Maxx. You know when you find the designer stuff that’s been specially made for them? That’s the “here’s a Fibchester Uni course at this dodgy provider on the outskirts of London above a kebab shop” provision I see a lot of universities badging these days, hoping that the students involved never meet someone from the main campus to compare and contrast.
  • Most will in the end have to do less and less teaching, most will offer less support via centrally run services, more will need to jack up stealth charges on students to stay afloat, and more and more teaching staff will be precarious and distant from the scholarship that is supposed to drive the curriculum.

These things are inevitable, everyone knows these things are happening, and everyone accepts that there is no magical version of “efficiency” that can be deployed without having an impact on the student experience. But what is really fascinating to me is the moral question that that situation generates.

Things are looking down

If a prospective undergraduate student was on an open day today for 2023 entry, they would graduate in 2026. At the very least, we’re saying to those students “this is what it’s like”, implying that that is what they will experience if they apply and enrol. But nobody I talk to in the sector – whichever end they are on the optimism/pessimism scale- thinks that providers will be able to maintain the current quality of experience by 2026.

In other words, everyone in the sector knows we are lying – either directly or by omission – to prospective students. If nothing else that’s a breach of consumer protection law, but it’s also morally horrifying.

Yet everyone’s doing it. When you save money on the scale that will be required in the coming years, it’s hard not to make things worse for students. And when you make things worse for students, you can’t really do it year group by year group.

But nobody is warning prospective students, either about the coming cost of living crunch or the squeeze that’s coming on their provision. Because nobody dares say it out loud when recruiting, and none of the national bodies think it’s a tactic they should use with ministers.

Maybe OfS’ new B Conditions will help – because if you set a “minimum” quality threshold, there should come a point when the unit of resource isn’t enough to enable you to deliver the quality threshold described in OfS B1, B2 and B4. In some parts of some providers, that point may already have been reached.

But how would OfS know? And if it did, what happens then? Do universities have to lie, while a politically captured OfS turns a blind eye? Will OfS warn ministers that the bone has been reached – or play along with the “efficiency” goal? And it surely doesn’t help the cause when multiple universities are signing off on franchised and validated provision where the external provider is making 25 percent and above margins.

All of this – the corner that the sector has been backed into – results in what I think is the difference between campaigning “implosion” and campaigning “explosion”. It’s a toxic mix of marketisation, personal reputation and a desire to avoid conflict that causes concern to be raised behind closed doors, but to fall on increasingly deaf ears.

It’s the Director of Comms asking the SU officer not to tweet about library overcrowding because it might damage recruitment. It’s the small print on the course page that says you reserve the right to cap module capacity on the pathways being promoted. It’s the straight face in the course committee when the student rep questions how a seminar can have 100 people in it. It’s Alton Towers admitting too many people for the ride capacity on a Bank Holiday Monday, only every day is a Bank Holiday in UK higher education now.

It’s the British fixation on keeping calm and carrying on, stiff upper lipping, it’ll all be alright in the ending. It’s a tactic that hasn’t worked for years, won’t work in the next few, and when it comes to what we’re saying to those students on those open days, leads everyone in the sector that is complicit in it into unimaginable moral hazard.

One response to “Tighter finances will impact students. Should we warn them?

  1. Excellent post and sums up well the English fixation with branding as a solution to everything, as per the Russell Group, whereas we need real solutions to real problems. On the other hand we are the nation that was most in favour of Brexit …

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