VOLUME 2 - ISSUE 1 - STUDENT FEES - WHO WINS?
During my first month as President, higher education featured strongly in the media, with the debate on student fees vying only with the Hutton report for the headlines. As I write this, the government has just secured its narrow victory, Mr Blair has been saved embarrassment and the student fees bill has been set in motion to become law. In all probability autumn 2006 will see the universities charging undergraduate students fees of up to £3000 per year. What will this mean to our universities and our students?
There can be little doubt that the universities are in dire straits financially. The dramatic expansion of student numbers has not been funded adequately and income per student has dropped dramatically, with some Vice Chancellors claiming a net loss of almost £3000 per student per year. The consequences are all too obvious. Buildings show signs of neglect, staff-student ratios have escalated and learning resources such as libraries have suffered badly. At the same time, the demands on academic time have increased hugely as the pressures of increased student numbers, the RAE, teaching quality assurance and ever-increasing bureaucracy have all taken their toll. Given the abysmal levels of academic salaries, it is not surprising that staff recruitment and retention are now key issues, as overseas universities and alternative career paths become increasingly attractive to both established academics and promising young scientists.
What has been the effect of this chronic underfunding on the education we provide? By nature, academics are creative, and many have invested time and energy in developing imaginative, cost-effective approaches to learning. Interactive web-based learning has been particularly successful in some fields, including our own, where, for example, computer simulations allow students to explore the effects of drugs in various model systems at the press of a button. Nonetheless, I can’t help but think that the quality of the student experience has diminished. Class sizes have increased and tutorials, if they happen at all, are often more like mini-seminars than occasions for groups of two or three students to engage in critical debate with a tutor. Similarly, the opportunity for students to gain practical experience has been reduced as costly, labour-intensive practical classes have been axed in line with teaching budgets. Meanwhile, learning objectives, detailed handouts and flashy powerpoint presentations abound. They often ensure good student feedback and also please our masters at the QA, but are they the backbone of a university education? Perhaps I view the past with rose-coloured spectacles but, for an experimental science such as pharmacology, I find it hard to see how there can be a substitute for hands-on laboratory experience, well stocked libraries and stimulating teachers who are able to spend time with their students in the lab and the classroom.
For the students, the financial prospects of fees are daunting. There will be some respite for those from low-income families with the introduction of modest government grants and institutional scholarships/bursaries; and students from wealthy families may well receive assistance from parents. However, for the vast majority there will be no financial buffer. These students will enter the workplace with debts in the region of £30-35K (substantially more for courses such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine). No doubt many will try to reduce debt accumulation by combining their studies with part-time work and/or by living at home – economic sense maybe, but at a cost to their education and university experience. Mounting debts are also bound to influence career choices, with openings that offer high starting salaries, golden hellos and fast track promotion becoming increasingly attractive. How many bright students will be prepared to consider low-paid vocational careers such as teaching, or to delay earning in order to study for a higher degree? How will these changes impact on our profession and on the future of biomedical research and teaching in the UK?
From the university perspective, many will argue that the £3000 fee is too little, too late. Given that the existing up-front fee of £1125 will disappear, the extra income will not bridge the current shortfall. Furthermore, in order to charge the full £3000 per year, institutions will be required to put a substantial part of the fee income aside to provide scholarships/bursaries for those from low-income families.
With the inevitable extra administration and now the threat of snoops to ensure that those receiving financial help are genuine customers, it is hard to see how more than a fraction of the additional fee income will find its way to supporting education. What are the solutions? The universities cannot afford to sustain continued losses and someone has to pay. Some have already indicated that they will seek to redress the balance by offering more places to postgraduate and overseas students and reducing the number of places for undergraduate home students. Others advocate higher fees, although last minute changes to the bill mean that this will not be an option until well into the next decade.
Perhaps we have had the wrong debate and we should stand back and decide exactly what it is we want our universities to do and why. Of course they have an essential role in determining the future prosperity of the country through both research and teaching; but just how far does their undergraduate teaching remit go? Messrs Blair and Clarke argue that all those who could benefit from a university education should have the opportunity to do so. A laudable goal, but is their target of 50% of school leavers attending university realistic or sensible? Not everyone is suited to a highly academic training and fitting square pegs into round holes rarely works.
Current statistics show that fewer than 50% of 16 year olds achieve 5 GCSEs at grades A-C and that still fewer go on to attain basic university entry requirements. Even within our existing student population a significant proportion drop out during th eir first year. Perhaps they are wise if they have found their course disappointing or recognised that they will not make the grade, because some 40% of graduates are employed in posts that do not require graduate skills or pay graduate salaries.
My guess is that come 2006, market forces will dominate and students will vote with their feet. Courses that offer good career prospects will be oversubscribed, those that don’t will crumble, and work-based vocational training will be back in vogue. After all, who would want debts of £30K (£60K with a partner in the same boat) without a promising career at the time they are struggling to get a mortgage and cope with the costs of bringing up a young family?