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Variable tuition fees?

Should degrees that bring a higher likelihood of highly-paid employment come with a higher price tag?
With all eyes on the value of university degrees – whether because it has become culturally-ingrained to be consumer-minded, or just because there’s an election around the corner – that’s a question being asked on the back of some research into the impact of £9000 fees.

The Times Higher Education reports here (registration/paywall) on the findings of King’s College London senior lecturer in economics Filipa Sa. She analysed the effect of the 2012 funding reforms on university applications and attendance, and found that the introduction of £9000 fees put students off doing courses that were likely to lead to poorly-paid careers.

Her findings were presented to the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference on 1 April (an earlier version of her research – The Effect of Tuition Fees on University Applications: Evidence from the UK – from August 2014 can be seen online here).

The THE quotes her as saying: “Perhaps fees should be higher for courses that lead to higher-paid jobs and lower for courses that are socially useful but don’t lead to very highly paid jobs.”

Should prescriptions be more expensive for drugs that have a higher chance of curing you, while we’re at it? Well, of course those drugs are often more expensive, and the prescription cost is designed to make the playing field level for everyone.

So are we talking about students paying a greater contribution of the fees themselves up front, rather than having it covered by loans?

Dr Sa’s research shows – unsurprisingly – that higher fees have a negative effect on demand. And we wouldn’t want to put off any of those aspiring engineers.

Her August 2014 paper also says: “The increase in fees led to an increase in the fraction of students who fund their education with loans and a reduction in the fraction of self-funded students”. Presumably we could increase loans for those on higher-cost courses, and expect those students to pay back more later. Which is fine for those who do actually end up in well-paid work.

This is where there might, perhaps, be an argument for the greater involvement by employers in university education I referred to in my last post (as urged by Wonkhe blogger Justin Shaw). Could employers expand their provision of bursaries, and put their money where their mouths frequently are?

Dr Sa’s August 2014 report says her findings “suggest that students take expected future earnings into account when making their course choices.” But the debate about value surely has to go beyond the gambling of money (whether it’s parents’ savings, or the Treasury’s) as an investment strategy. We are in danger of losing interest in the value of ideas, and those ideas that haven’t even occurred to us yet, in our quest for an equation that balances future earnings against immediate costs. That kind of thinking belongs in the betting shop on the corner.

What if businesses and other organisations made a bigger investment, in the form of bursaries, in students who have a demonstrable – even contractual – contribution to make after graduation? Now that starts to look like a safer bet.

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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