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22nd Jun 2012

The impact of government policy on British universities

A series of recent stories in The Telegraph underscores that UK educators continue to feel the effects of government policies and other factors affecting the attractiveness of British university degrees. The stories cover:

  • The UK government’s decision to almost triple the cost of a degree in September (to up to £9,000-a-year)
  • The perception that cash-strapped British universities are offering less exciting university experiences than American ones, or that UK institutions are not welcoming to foreigners
  • Government plans to expand the university sector, possibly affecting the prestige of the British university brand

On top of this are the newly introduced visa policies restricting the ability of foreign students to work in the UK. Altogether, Britain’s reputation as a study abroad destination is in question, and the country’s own students seem to be increasingly looking abroad for their higher education (with schools in the US and the Netherlands increasingly sought after). In case you missed the stories, here are the highlights:

Tuition hike impact

According to statistics published in early June from a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research, the tuition hike is already reducing demand for university courses in the UK. Applications have fallen by 9% in 12 months – almost 50,000 less applications – among British students, and the decline is even more pronounced in England, where students do not receive the same subsidies as in other parts of Britain. Furthermore, preliminary reports from The Republic's Central Applications Office (CAO) reveal that the number of UK students who have applied to study at universities in the Republic of Ireland has risen by 28%. Commenting on the study’s findings, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "It should come as little surprise that applications in England are hardest hit as a result of the government making it the most expensive country in the world in which to gain a public degree education. This research highlights the folly of reducing public investment in our colleges and universities. Instead of cutting places and making it more expensive to study, ministers need a strategy which harnesses further and higher education to provide a window of opportunity for the next generation." Applications for arts-based courses have suffered extensively, as well as other courses that traditionally lead to less high-paying jobs. The study also predicted that the wage "premium" afforded by a university education vs. a lower level of education would decline by a fifth. Exacerbating British universities’ problems are what Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, Berkshire, calls a "malaise" affecting them in a new book, Uni in the USA. Seldon says cash-strapped British universities are providing less contact time with lecturers and demonstrating only a "perfunctory interest" in sport and the arts compared to US universities. Such a climate, coupled with the tuition hike, may be contributing to the fact that in 2011 fully a third more students took the US college entrance exam in Britain compared with 2008. Indeed, the Fulbright Commission, which promotes links between US and UK universities, found that applications to Pennsylvania University increased by 50% in 2011, by 41% for Harvard and by 23% for Yale. Alice Fishburn, Uni in the USA’s editor, told The Telegraph:

"The rise of tuition fees in England is slowly forcing people to look across the Atlantic. The excellent financial aid and bursary programmes in place at most American universities ensure that many British students can afford to go, regardless of their educational background or economic status. The recent slide of the dollar puts living expenses within reach. Most students will graduate with less debt than their British contemporaries."

More shake-ups on the home front include an overhaul of traditional A-level exams as part of wide-ranging reforms designed to toughen up the gold standard qualification, and a rash of fines doled out to institutions for over-recruiting - a possible effect of the difficulty in predicting demand due to increased tuition hike.

Expanding the university sector

In addition, the government’s plan to allow more institutions to claim university status - in what’s being called "the biggest expansion of higher education in 20 years" - is worrying some within the higher education sector that the British university brand will be diminished. The Telegraph reports that institutions with just 1,000 students (with only 750 taking degrees) will be able to win the right to full university status under new plans (in the past, colleges could only apply if they had at least 4,000 students, with 3,000 taking degrees). Professor Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of Sussex University and chairman of the 1994 Group, which represents research universities, said to The Telegraph: “There should of course be scope for new and emerging institutions to gain the title of 'university,' but we should resist moves to devalue the title through indiscriminate use."

"UK just can't compete"

Meanwhile, as we reported about two weeks ago, there is intense concern about the British government’s decision to place a limit on how many years foreign students can spend studying in the country and how much they can work – not to mention new restrictions on bringing family. Times Higher Education reports that so far the visa rules have not negatively affected overseas applications, with one exception: those from India. At the London School of Economics, Indian graduate applications have fallen by 20%, and they have fallen by roughly 10% at Edinburgh and Glasgow. Pragyat Singh, head of the University of Wolverhampton’s South Asia Regional Office, said to Times Higher Education that the fact that Australia and New Zealand as well as Canada offer post-study work options means that Britain "just cannot compete in this market." Singh also asserted: "It is extremely important to understand who the consumer for UK universities is. It is the rising middle class from places such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They aspire to higher education in order to procure better jobs and career opportunities. They need a job overseas to pay back [the loans] as local salaries just do not match up." Nicola Dandridge, Universities UK chief executive, said that the "cumulative effect of all these changes is to present a picture of the UK as not welcoming international students. As competitor countries start to introduce visa changes to attract more international students and academics, we have real concerns about the situation in the long term." "Although the UK continues to have one of the strongest higher education systems in the world, in recent years, we have already started losing market share in the face of growing competition globally. It is clear that international students at universities should not be treated as permanent migrants, since the vast majority of them leave the UK at the end of their studies." Finally, commenting on the general trend of foreign applications not decreasing as yet, Dandridge stated: "Although application figures for this year appear to be holding firm, they do not reflect the full impact of the changes, many of which have just taken effect. Persistent, negative publicity surrounding visa changes will begin to bite in the near future, which could be hugely damaging for many universities that had planned on expanding their numbers." Sources: The Telegraph, Times Higher Education, BBC

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