Has London Met changed the fee-setting game?

London Metropolitan's recent announcement about their expected pricing structure predictably garnered headlines due to their decision to charge significantly less than 9k for all but a handful of courses. But the bigger news is that they have chosen to charge a range of fees, dependent on subject. The average fee will rest somewhere between £6k and £7k, though vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies suggests that the price range will be big, with some courses much cheaper and others possibly charging the full £9k.
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London Metropolitan’s recent announcement about their expected pricing structure predictably garnered headlines due to their decision to charge significantly less than 9k for all but a handful of courses. But the bigger news is that they have chosen to charge a range of fees, dependent on subject.

The average fee will rest somewhere between £6k and £7k, though vice-chancellor, Malcolm Gillies suggests that the price range will be big, with some courses much cheaper and others possibly charging the full £9k. William Cullerne Bown has put together an interesting forecast for university tuition fees, suggesting that the average fee is likely to be around £8k. Time will tell. But what impact could variable fee-setting make to all this?

For universities:

The need to justify price based on each individual course – A broad brush approach on fees is easier to implement, even if variable pricing creates a more reasonable play for students. If an institution creates a variable structure, actual cost breakdowns are begging to be outlined. And questions arise over why one course is more expensive than another. It’s easy to say that, for instance, more technical courses require greater resources, but will that be enough?

Placing just one course above £6k a year will trigger the need for an access agreement – Will the promise of some courses under £6k be one way to satisfy OFFA? Other proposals will be necessary, but lower prices for some courses could prove a positive.

More resources are required to put together a variable price structure – Variable fees will take more time to arrange and, therefore, cost more to implement. It may not be too difficult, but there are pitfalls that make the variable fee route more daunting and potentially harder to explain to prospective and current students.

Other universities may be pressured to do similar – If enough institutions push variable fees, an across-the-board fee structure may begin to look unreasonable or even complacent. The market in individual courses could potentially become more important than the institution they sit in.

Focus on cost, rather than prestige – Deborah Rhode says that higher education is “caught in an arms race of reputation”. With a more individually-costed approach, institutions could shift the focus toward a peaceful dig of discovery and development.

For students:

Choosing cheaper courses – The desire to keep debt down may result in some students refusing the subject they would most like to study, in favour of a less expensive and less desired course. A false economy?

Choosing more expensive courses – Because a higher price tag clearly highlights a better experience… Another false economy?

Viewing cheaper courses with suspicion – People will question whether a lower price tag means less interest/investment in them during their experience. Students already come armed with expectations about what they are paying for. Universities may want to charge on the basis of prestige, but students may be more worried about the treatment they’ll receive.

Viewing more expensive courses with suspicion – Why pay more for the same degree? Decisions about choosing a university and a subject should not be entirely focussed on the price tag. Yet some, perhaps many, decisions will focus on exactly that. The market analogy is actively encouraged at times, yet the ability to determine value is near to impossible in HE terms.

Potential for dissatisfaction on campus (and beyond) – Students could feel short-changed as those on courses charging the same — or less — appear to get a ‘better deal’. The market analogy may have a negative effect on some courses that doesn’t emerge quickly or clearly enough for universities to remedy. Would students be at risk of losing out, with universities at risk of crashing down?

There are many other considerations, but five are enough to make this point. Rather than guess how much each university will charge students the question now is; how many of them will choose a variable structure like London Met? With some research intensive institutions already putting up the £9k flag, might we see variable structures within more teaching focused universities? Or will some other type of pattern emerge? There is greater possibility of further surprises emerging from this scenario than if the majority set a single fee across the board. In fact, the differences between those with one fee and those with many may begin a narrative that nobody has considered much yet.

Did London Met change the rules of the game this week?

 

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