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Universities Focus

The issue of rising tuition fees has dominated the political agenda


changes to higher education that could alter it forever, writes Janet Murray. As well as a big hike in tuition fees, due to treble from next year, new policy has made it easier for new universities and private colleges to be set up. The philosopher and academic


Professor Anthony Grayling is the first to step forward with a proposal for a new private college of humanities, with fees of around £18,000 per year and so-called “super-Don” lecturers like the historian Niall Ferguson, biologist Richard Dawkins and psychologist Steven Pinker. So what does this mean for those thinking about applying to university over the next few years? Will there be an expansion in the number of universities and how might this impact on the quality of higher education?

In the short term, the changes are unlikely to be dramatic, says Carl Lygo, CEO of BPP University College, one of two existing private universities in the UK - the other being Buckingham University. While it is possible that a few new universities will spring up over the next few years, this is not likely to happen on a massive scale.

The issue of rising tuition fees has dominated the political agenda, but this is a bit of a red herring. In practice, it is unlikely to leave graduates worse off. Wendy Purcell, vice-chancellor at Plymouth University explains: “Parents are focused on the headline fee, but it really is going to be a contribution in the sense that if the graduate has a good job, they are just going to be paying back a little bit more tax and over a much longer period of time than they do now.”

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And while misunderstandings about the new fee system could lead to an initial fall in student numbers, Lygo predicts this won’t last long. “I suspect that, apart from next year and maybe the year after, where there will be a short dip in the number of students going to university, people will get used to paying and it will go back up again.”

The issue of rising tuition fees…is a bit of a

red herring…in practice it is unlikely to leave graduates worse off

38 FirstEleven Autumn 2011

ince the Coalition government came to power last year, there have been sweeping

While tuition fees have dominated the news agenda, Purcell points out that this is just one of a number of radical reforms to higher education; of far greater concern for many in the sector are government plans to create a more competitive market.

Traditionally, each university has had a fixed number of government-funded places for undergraduates each autumn, with those who over-recruit facing hefty fines. Numbers have to be capped because of the cost to the taxpayer of upfront student loans and means-tested grants to cover tuition and living expenses.

In this new, more competitive market, as well as offering two-year degrees which let colleges teach their degree courses, universities will be allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of the best performing students (typically those who achieve grades AAB or higher at A level). The Government claims this will put students in the driving seat and give them much more choice about where and what they study.

But not everyone is convinced about the changes, says Lygo. “Effectively you’re getting lots of competition [between institutions] for highly qualified ‘A’ level students. Those who want to go to the kind of research- intensive universities are going to find themselves in high demand, with scholarships being thrown at students as well. Some have described it as a two-tier system where elite students are competed for by the elite universities.” This could present challenges for less prestigious universities, who may find themselves squeezed out of the market, he says. “I think the more research-intensive universities will sit back on their reputations and expect to be able to use that trade-off against the newer universities


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