Finances, Students

Jumping on the student gravy train

We’re almost twenty years into this century and each year has brought an increase in the politicisation of the UK’s universities, with the resulting knock-on effect on the student population.  In 2002, Tony Blair said that the government’s target was for 50% of eighteen-year-olds to enter higher education – a figure which it subsequently transpired he probably picked out of the air.  David Cameron was keen on universities being run as businesses, while at the same time deploring the “narrowness” of the subjects they covered. 

The introduction of tuition fees, starting at modest levels in 1998 and rising eventually to £9,000 a year in the academic year 2012 – 2013, meant universities were now in competition with each other, and trying not only to attract the best students or encourage students to enrol for the courses that best served their goals, but taking any students with the remotest prospect of gaining a degree, provided they could pay the fees. This has resulted in the phenomenon of 38% of students receiving unconditional offers, or offers with “unconditional components”, according to UCAS, this year.  The practice has now come under scrutiny because there is evidence that some of these students have not made as much effort to gain good A level grades as they would have if they’d had targets to meet.  Confusingly, the same quest to beat the competition has made sixth form colleges and secondary schools with sixth forms turn away students who did not achieve high GCSE grades, to preserve the reputation of the school. 

In a partial about-turn, but still with the competitive aim very much in view, some universities are now offering incentives, in the form of bursaries, to students who get the best A level grades; others are offering reduced fees, putting money into “free” accounts for the purchase of study-related materials, or providing first-year students with computers in order to fill all the places they have available.  And although in practice UK universities embrace the concept of “widening participation” with varying degrees of enthusiasm, all are paying it 110% lip service.  But really it is all about bums on seats.

Now others are jumping on the student gravy train.  Banks are offering cash incentives to students opening accounts.  One very famous hardware manufacturer sells a computer costing almost £1000 which, recent adverts suggest, students can’t do without; they’re being offered it via a payment scheme of “only” almost £50 per month.  It is easy for students to get loans, not just from the government, but from banks and other financial providers, including some very dubious ones. 

Students have therefore become big business.  Everyone wants a piece of the cash they do not actually have, but will somehow find ways of obtaining because they believe they are investing in their future.  Sometimes the outcome will be worthwhile; on many occasions it won’t – they’ll either drop out of courses unsuitable for them or which they can’t keep on funding; emerge from university with degrees that don’t fit them for the jobs they want to do; or find that no jobs exist in their chosen field.  And the real scandal is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find someone to turn to for unbiased, well-informed advice before they make these costly decisions.  Schools and universities are likely to put their own vested interests first; many parents still labour under the delusion that if only you can get a degree, the world will be your oyster.

Wouldn’t it be great if the institutions and businesses seeking to make money from students put back a little of that money to set up an independent advisory council for students – something akin to an Ombudsman Service, a financial planning service, a Citizen’s Advice Bureau and a careers advisory service rolled into one?  It wouldn’t close down the gravy-train – to expect that would be too pie-in-the-sky – but at least it would help them to make wiser, better informed choices more suited to their needs. 

Finances, Policy, Universities

HE and Student Finance: The “Augar Report” – what’s in it?

“Post-18 report” or “Augar report” – there has been talk about this long-awaited report in the HE sector for a while, and it played a pivotal role in the discussions at the ABT Conference (see our last blog post). Yesterday, it finally was published, but what is all that about??

Last year, for the first time in more than 50 years, the government commissioned a review into student finance to inform the sector. The report was conducted by an independent panel following an initiative by businessman Philip Augar, and was originally expected to be released in February 2019. With much delay and long awaited, the “Review of Post-18 Education and Funding” was finally published on May 30th. 216 pages long, it gives a wide variety of recommendations (50 in total) and considers many details that affect student finance and the cost of Higher (and Further) Education. What’s remarkable is that it includes all post-compulsory education funding, so covers both HE and FE.

And one of its most important conclusions is that Further Education is in much greater need of support than the Higher Education sector. A new mission is needed for Further Education, and it needs solid financial backing. The three main recommendations for this sector are the protection of the title “College” (just in line with that of “University”) to enhance the knowledge of its meaning in society and a certain quality-control, a creation of a coherent network of colleges across the UK that deliver skills (focussed on levels three to five), and a substantial increase in funding.

On apprenticeships, the main recommendation is a growth in degree-level and level seven apprenticeships, though acknowledging the expense of that route. One suggestion is to limit the funding for apprenticeships to those apprentices who do not already hold a degree-level qualification. The panel sees a need for Ofsted to assume responsibility for assessing all levels of apprenticeships.

The recommendation that Higher Education should reduce the tuition fee cap to £7,500 (and then freeze it until 2022/23 before increasing it in line with inflation) has made the national news over the past 24 hours. The recommendation also says that the income gap should be closed by the increase of teaching grants by the government, and should be adjusted on a subject-level basis, according to the cost of each subject. According to the report, the funding for widening participation should not be taken out of a proportion of the student fee (the current system), but instead a funding system comparable to the schools’ Student Premium should be introduced. Using this method, a university would receive its grant based on the actual intake numbers of socially and economically disadvantaged students.

On the wider topic of student finance (which affects all above-mentioned kinds of non-compulsory education), the basis of the recommendations is that the tax-payer should be covering a smaller proportion of the student finance system. Based on research conducted by the Department of Education that suggests that people would prefer higher monthly repayments and a longer repayment period in return for lower fees and lower interest rates (surprisingly!), the recommendations say that there should be zero interest applied during the study, that the repayment threshold should be reduced (to median non-graduate salary) and that the repayment period should be extended to forty years. There are also suggested changes to interest rates and the lifetime repayments to avoid those who earn more later in their careers being penalised.
However, the most interesting recommendation for the sector is perhaps the re-introduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 per eligible student. The panel also recommends that the expectation of parents’ contributions (of families of higher income) should be made clearer, so both students and parents know what kind of financial support a student could or should expect from their parents.

Overall, the report has been conducted in a mindful way, with awareness of current pressures on student finance, addressing the needs of Further Education and a sense of detail about university finance. Whether the report reflects the realities faced by students and universities and supports their interests more widely is another question. Whether any of these recommendations will be carried out, given the current political climate, is an entirely different issue.

The full report can be downloaded from the Gov.uk website.


Finances, Universities

Bums on Seats: Regulating the UK Higher Education Sector

Gold Leaf carries out a great deal of research in and around universities, both in the UK and in many other places in the world.  An issue that several of its recent research projects has highlighted is the heightened competition to which the HE sector is now being subjected globally.  In the UK, this was largely caused by the decision taken by recent governments – of both main political persuasions –  to create a ‘market’ within the HE sector; unfortunately, in the minds of students and their parents, it has also become linked with the rapid hike in fees that took place at around the same time.  This has had the unforeseen (and presumably unwanted by the government) effect of causing some students to believe that they are ‘paying for’ their degrees – i.e., paying for the actual grades they are awarded, not just the tuition fees.

It is perhaps unfortunate that during the same period the activities of HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] were wound down, as HEFCE was replaced by the OfS [Office for Students].  A certain hiatus resulted, as the OfS seemed to be relatively slow in getting into gear and for a while little regulatory work seemed to be being carried out in the sector.

This has now changed.  The OfS has flexed its muscles by publishing a series of important reports and directives, one of the most recent of which is entitled Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England.   The report states that, as part of the registration and ongoing monitoring process, all higher education providers are now required to demonstrate to the OfS that they are financially viable and sustainable. 

Some Vice-Chancellors of even well-known and very well-established universities may have quailed at learning this, as their seeming failure to be able to balance the books has frequently been dissected by the Press over the last two or three years.  The OfS doesn’t explain its methods, however – there are many kinds of capital, for example, not all of them tangible, and it doesn’t say which kinds are acceptable in boosting universities’ perceived solvency – but it does say “our analysis suggests that the sector overall is currently in reasonable financial health”.   Better news than might have been thought, then. But, sounding a greater note of caution immediately afterwards, the OfS adds that “the general picture masks considerable variations in financial performance between individual providers”.  Not really a surprise, but perhaps some Vice-Chancellors should start quaking, after all.

Although some providers are predicted to do less well next year than initially expected, the OfS says that this is mainly because the forecast growth in student numbers has been over-optimistic in the short term; but apparently universities’ student recruitment ambitions now stand a greater chance of being realised.  Of the 183 registered UK HE providers, 122 are assuming growth in student numbers of more than 5% – the students are expected to come from the “UK, EU and overseas” – in the next four years.   The OfS notes that most of these providers are not reliant on this projected growth to reduce their projected costs (i.e., their calculations are not based on what economists call ‘margin’) if their student recruitment ambitions are not met, so the OfS will continue to monitor them closely for financial stability.  Good news for students and their parents, then.  Vice-Chancellors still under pressure!

However: “Collectively, providers forecast the number of overseas students to increase by approximately 56,000 full-time equivalent (FTE)(20.7 per cent). Fee income from overseas students is projected to rise by £1.7 billion (37.9 per cent), suggesting an anticipated increase in the average fee charged to overseas students. The government’s recently announced international education strategy aims to support the sector to increase the number of overseas students.”  Is this a cunning element of the government’s Brexit plans?

Almost as an afterthought, the report acknowledges that the higher education sector continues to face uncertainties, “including the UK’s future relationship with the EU; potential changes in government policy following the review of post-18 education funding; and as a consequence of student choice following a continuing decline in the 18-year-old UK population to 2020.” 

Aside from the fact that the last statement appears to blame the decline in 18-year olds by 2020 on “student choice” (were the first-borns so obnoxious that they deterred their parents from providing siblings?), the report fails to inspire confidence.  The cautious optimism it demonstrates in the face of almost certain adversity seems almost reckless.        

Nevertheless, it is an interesting document: it produces some useful financial detail about where the university sector in the UK is heading, and as it is only 23 pages long, offers both information and entertainment (infotainment?) at the expense of not too great an outlay in time. 

The report may be found at https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/cf54b6ee-714e-45c3-ade9-56bc685b861d/report-on-financial-sustainability-of-higher-education-providers-in-england.pdf