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The Class of 2015 and value for money

Four in 10 students say university is not good value for money, according to the BBC this week. That’s the result of one survey of around 1000 final year students – the first to have paid £9000 per year after the trebling of fees in 2012.

But the BBC was not alone in canvassing the views of the Class of 2015 about the value of their courses. The UK Graduate Careers Survey 2015, carried out by High Fliers Research, questioned 18,000 final year students at 30 universities, and this too confirmed that value for money is a big concern for those young people who are committing to three or four years of higher education.

Of course, if you ask students a lot of questions about value, it will appear that value is very important. So UniBox spoke to Paul Ingham, Director of Careers at Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge (Sunday Times Sixth Form College of the Year in 2013 and one of the country’s top state schools for A level results), to get another perspective.

Mr Ingham pointed out that if 40% of students say uni is not good value for money, that still means the majority are happy. (Indeed, the BBC 5 Live survey found that over half did think their course was good value, and 46% would do the same course again.)

Mr Ingham said fees are not discouraging his students. “We have sent the largest number of UCAS applications ever this year, without the college having grown to the same extent,” he said. The increase in fees in 2012 did cause a dip in applications, he said, but only because some Hills Road students chose to take gap years in order to get valuable work experience.

Hills Road always has a number of students going on to study healthcare – nursing, midwifery, medicine – and Mr Ingham said those courses have increased in popularity nationwide, and consequently competitiveness as they are degrees with a direct employment link.

“For vocational courses more students with the right grades are getting rejections,” he said, particularly in nursing, midwifery and drama.

“Students who wouldn’t have been in Clearing in the past are there now.”

So a gap year could be a sensible option. The Telegraph, reporting on the High Fliers survey, said there was “a marked increase in the motivation of final year students with large numbers taking positive steps in order secure employment once they graduate. Almost a half of all those who took part in the survey said they had completed work placements or internships, while 64 per cent saying [sic] they had submitted job applications by March in their final year.”

Mr Ingham’s advice to university applicants would be: “Make sure you have got the work experience and can talk about what you have done. Maybe take a gap year and get the experience you need.”

Where around a quarter of Hills Road students have taken gap years in the past, it’s now around a third. In many cases, that’s because the students have become more savvy about keeping their options open.

Mr Ingham said: “They want to see value for the £9000 fees and one way to do that is to be a post-results applicant, and play the field later.” Other students will take a gap year if they do get the results they needed, and apply again with greater ambition.

“Some students will decline offers they think they can do better than,” said Mr Ingham.

Before the general election in May, the Guardian held a panel discussion about the new fees regime and heard students’ demands about tuition fees and student life. This came to the contradictory conclusion that students want value for money, but don’t want to be treated like consumers.

So do students want to have their cake and eat it too? Mr Ingham said: “They are aware of the push towards employability, and in a minority of cases there might be a resentment along the lines of: ‘I just want to do the subject because I’m interested in it.’ But employability is key. It’s incredibly important to us.” After all, he said: “It’s increasingly a higher education ‘product’, leading to a good, well paid job which is the payback.”

Higher Education institutions also see it as important, increasingly promoting themselves in prospectuses and on their websites by showing how their graduates have gone into the workplace.

And with students and their parents alike now having instant access to resources like UniStats, where they can see at a glance how good a given university is at producing employable graduates, then whatever level fees are set at, it is likely that the value-for-money consideration is here to stay.

Universities will be under greater pressure to demonstrate that their undergraduates will get some kind of return on their investment, and applicants may think harder about their options with their future careers in mind – as they do at Hills Road.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Thu, 2 Feb 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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