Thursday, 29 October 2009

Universities must give students a better deal if they want higher fees

I have a piece in today's Independent, arguing that if universities want fees to rise to as much as £7,000 a year, they must provide students with a better all-round deal. And this should be an explicit part of the forthcoming fees review. Here's an extract:

In the coming weeks the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, will announce the terms of reference for a review of student fees. The cross-party investigation is likely to recommend an increase in tuition fees from £3,225 to as much as between £5,000 and £7,000 a year, increasing the proportion of courses costs paid back by students after graduation. But if universities want the right to charge higher fees, there is growing political consensus that they must also be prepared to improve greatly the experience they provide for undergraduates.

The Higher Education Policy Institute has shown that the combination of teaching and private study for undergraduates in some humanities and social science courses amounts to just 14 hours a week, though it is much higher in the more demanding universities and the average is 29 hours, including 14.5 hours' contact time. But the higher the fees become, the greater the expectation of students and their parents.

This isn't just a problem with domestic students. Overseas students, who contribute £4bn a year in fees (more than eight per cent of the total income of UK universities) already pay £10,000 to £20,000 a year for most courses. Their numbers have grown over the last decade, but there is greater competition within Europe, Australia and the United States, and Chinese and Indian students increasingly have less expensive options closer to home. Unless they feel they are getting good value for their money, they will go elsewhere.

Some universities are recognising how important it is to provide a good student experience. Lancaster, Manchester and the London School of Economics give students clearer commitments on contact time, class sizes and access to lecturers than many. Others, like Northumbria, provide substantial hands-on facilities and work experience in subjects such as law and health.

But there is still a sense among too many vice-chancellors that they should be allowed to charge higher fees without needing to improve substantially students' overall academic and pastoral experiences. That's why the terms of reference for the new review must explicitly include the issues that Mr Willetts suggested [contact hours, class sizes and employability]. It will be hard enough selling another fees increase to Middle England. Unless their anxieties about what happens at university are addressed, it may prove politically impossible. Vice-chancellors must raise their game if they want the right to raise their fees.

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