2012 degree funding - one school's experience

Higher Education Coordinator David Milner investigates the impact the increase in tuition fees will have on students in the UK and how it could lead to a number opting to study overseas.

The last five years have seen a large increase, in both the number of university places for degree courses and the numbers applying for them. In 2010 there were 640,000 applicants and 482,000 were eventually accepted for a place. This increase is due to increased emphasis on studying at undergraduate level, the perceived importance of a degree for the jobs market, wider access programmes, the lack of suitable employment for qualified eighteen-year-olds and an increase in the number of mature applicants. The introduction of tuition fees in 2006 has apparently made very little difference to applicant numbers, even though nearly all universities charged the maximum allowed  - about £3,200 per year.

The funding arrangements for universities are now set to change for 2012 entrants in a major way. Potential students are likely to be asked to pay approximately £6,000 per year and many universities, particularly those in the Russell Group, are likely to charge at or near the maximum £9,000 per year.

The current system of grants, bursaries and scholarships, which benefit particularly those from low income households, will continue. There is some evidence that those students from above average to higher income households are being subsidised by their parent(s) and it is the middle income households that are hit hardest.

There are many who feel that the new arrangements will lead to a decline in numbers applying for university after potential students do the sums concerning the loans required and the increased difficulty in obtaining a mortgage in relation to prospective earnings.

To test this I carried out a survey in The Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester - a large comprehensive school sixth form that has sent between 350 and 400 students to higher education each year since 2006. The last two years have seen 82% go to university courses. The survey was based on a sample of 50 students in each of Year 12 and 13. The current Year 13 will be funded under the current arrangements if they apply for 2012, i.e. if no gap year is taken. This year 91% intend to apply and 38% of these say the funding arrangements have been a very important factor in the decision on when to start a degree course. Indeed, 42% say they would have considered a gap year, but the importance of a 2012 start has been a major factor. The percentage that actually takes a year out has been steady at between 8% and 12% for the last five years. This year, only 3% have applied for deferred entry and since the new funding arrangements were announced, half of these have written to their chosen HEIs asking to be considered for 2012 entry.

These findings confirm the importance of funding arrangements and we have seen a noticeable rise in applicants to HEIs for 2012 start. UCAS have not released any interim figures to date but, in this school, numbers of applicants are 20% higher than at this time last year. In Year 12 I found that 24% do not intend to apply for a degree course, a significant rise compared to previous years, and 79% of these cited finance as a factor, 91% giving this as an important reason.

Now students will be asked to pay a sum approaching the full cost of their course another option to explore is studying abroad. The number of HEIs approaching schools in the UK has significantly increased in the last two years and this year we have received brochures from universities all round the world, but particularly Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Poland, France, Ireland and Germany. Currently only about 30,000 take this option (including those with a year’s placement in their degree course) but more will now think of doing so and HEFC is actively encouraging this. In Year 13, 34% had thought of applying outside the UK. Historically, approximately 1% actually do so, but the number considering this option has risen to 56% for Year 12, with finance being cited as a major reason by 86%.

When asked about the potential increase in fees, students responded by saying that “less and less people will be able to afford it and go” and the new fees “are just unnecessary”. Others maintained that “if you want a world-class degree, you have to pay for it” adding that “everyone will have the opportunity to finance [their] degree”

There are three other areas the new arrangements will also impact upon. These are already in evidence  - the question is whether the existing situation will be reinforced or changed. Will the new arrangements affect the take up by different income groups? Will the varied weight given to degrees from different universities be exacerbated? Will universities enter the market system by differentiating themselves by price and specialisation? More research is needed to explore these issues but the next two years will tell.

In conclusion, the new funding arrangements for degrees are likely to have an impact on applications in two main ways. Firstly there is likely to be a reduction in the numbers of school leavers applying for degree courses, particularly from 'middle income households', and secondly, more UK students will actively consider courses abroad.  

Written by David Milner (2011)
Higher Education Coordinator
Thomas Hardye School