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Margin Notes

The U.K.’s radical tuition experiment

Massive fee hike for students in England is a dramatic test for accessibility.


As Quebec debated this week whether to index tuition fees to inflation, a far more radical overhaul of tuition policy plays out in England. The Quebec government announced on Monday it plans to raise tuition by 3 percent, or about $70 from the current level of just under $2,200. Compare this to the U.K. government, which implemented a plan last year that saw university students in England pay on average £8,500 ($13,300 CDN) for the school year, a massive increase of more than 250% from the previous average tuition of £3,300. (Tuition policy in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland is different, and students in those countries did not experience a similar increase in fees.)

It’s been a wild ride for tuition fees in England over a relatively short period of time. Tuition fees of £1,000 were first introduced in 1998 then were tripled to around £3,000 starting in 2006. In the current system, all students are eligible for loans to cover the full tuition costs and repayment of these loans begins after graduation.

When the recent policy changes in the U.K. were first announced two years ago, student and faculty groups, among others, warned darkly that it would have a disastrous effect on student enrolment and accessibility. At the very least, one policy wonk said it would be a very interesting natural experiment to test whether that would indeed by the case.

Opponents of the tuition hike appeared to have their fears confirmed when the university application rates for 2012-13 were announced and showed a drop of around 10 percent in England compared to the previous year. But, in January, something funny happened to this narrative. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (the centralized service for students applying to university and college in the U.K.) announced the application rates in England for the upcoming 2013-14 academic year rose by 3.5 percent compared to the current academic year. This is still down from the application rates in years prior to the massive tuition hike, but a rise nevertheless. (The full UCAS report can be seen here.) This raises the question: do high university tuition fees affect enrolment rates or not?

The rise in applications for next year was not altogether a surprise. According to Alex Usher (the same policy wonk alluded to above), principal of Higher Education Strategy Associates, this is essentially what happened in the U.K. after both the 1998 and the 2005 tuition hikes – a jump in enrolments before the hike, then a fall immediately after the hike, followed by a rebound in the second year after the change as the system returned to equilibrium. These results, said Mr. Usher, should be sent “to your favourite student leader” and should be plastered “to Pierre Duchesne’s head” (Mr. Duchesne is Quebec’s higher education minister). Mr. Usher added facetiously, “there’s a prize for the first person who can read these and still make a coherent argument for why a Quebec-style tuition increase would have any effect at all on access.”

Of course, not everyone is as sanguine as Mr. Usher. The president of the National Students Union in the U.K. said the UCAS data are welcome, “but they are certainly not the only litmus test against which government reforms are to be measured,” adding, “Excuse me for not engaging in premature backslapping.” Another student commentator said a closer look at the data show that, as a result of the fee hike, students “are shunning humanities and arts degrees, and putting their faith in courses they think will land them a job.”

Claire Callender, professor of higher education at the University of London, said at a recent conference in Toronto that “English higher education should start worrying big time.” In a presentation to the “Academia in the Age of Austerity” conference organized by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, she concluded that the U.K. reforms “herald a retreat from the state’s financial responsibility” for higher education and questioned whether they will perpetuate existing inequalities and social class divisions. The title of her talk, “Austerity in England: Dramatic impact, uncertain future,” summed up her views.

I must say I also wonder whether these reforms are a step too far and what the negative downstream effects will be for a generation holding such substantial debts after graduation – an interesting experiment, indeed.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Brian Nettlefold / February 27, 2013 at 12:33

    To say that “tuition policy in … Scotland is different” is somewhat of an understatement. Scottish students pay no tuition for their first degree at a Scottish university.

  2. Danilo Ramos / February 27, 2013 at 15:17

    I don’t think that rates would decrease. People look at university as a must to progress in life, therefore people would sacrifice to go there.

    I think it should be analyzed differently. It should be observed as the debt of the student after finishing his studies and the impact in the economy. Would it be beneficial for the country to have young people with a lot of debt when starting the first job. Would this affect the time they choose to get married and have children?


    • Jason / October 5, 2015 at 19:28

      Looking at pure enrollment numbers is almost a pointless exercise. If one is truly interested in measuring impact on accessibility, one needs to monitor for changes in the demographics of those attending, as well as measuring what greater sacrifices poor students and their families might be making to offset tuition. If underprivileged students continue to enroll at similar rates, but are sacrificing study time to work part-time jobs or are taking more cautious degree paths, then there will indeed have been a negative impact, regardless of whether students numbers remain strong.

      • Jason / October 5, 2015 at 19:30

        My comment was at the article, not at your comment. 🙂

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