In 2006, a new way of charging university students for tuition was introduced in England (Scotland did something different). Universities were allowed to charge undergraduates fees up to £3000 a year (since uprated to about £3300), a significant increase on the previous level, but now the government would pay the fee to the university on the student's behalf, recovering it from the student through the tax system once she or he was earning a sum somewhat below the national median income. (The same arrangements applied to students from other EU countries, but not to international students.) Although universities had the choice of charging fees below £3000, nearly all decided to charge the maximum fee, a position which has persisted.
At the time, there was widespread concern that the substantial debt for which graduating students would be liable (albeit a debt that would be recovered slowly as their incomes increased) would deter young people from entering higher education. In particular, it was suggested that people from poorer families would have greater aversion to debt, and that these new arrangements would accordingly reduce their participation in higher education, undoing years of effort to get poorer students into university.
Most students in England apply to university through a central scheme run collectively by the universities, called UCAS. When the results of the school-leaving examinations taken at age 18 (A-levels) are known in mid-August, applicants are told whether or not their chosen university will accept them. Inevitably, many students do not get the A-level grades that their preferred university asked for, and so have to look for vacancies in other universities with less demanding entry requirements. This process is known as "clearing", and the extent of an institution's participation in clearing is an informal marker of prestige: usually, well-regarded research universities do not take part in the process at all, or only perhaps in respect of a few hard-to-fill courses. Some teaching-focused universities, by contrast, fill a majority of their places in this way, and so for them, the first days in which the clearing scheme operates are crucial.
This year, demand for university places has outstripped supply by a greater margin than ever before. Even universities traditionally reliant on clearing filled all their places in a matter of days, and more universities than usual hardly entered the process at all. This is despite the government funding about 8,000 extra places (that is, meeting the costs of student places not met by tuition fees). It is estimated that some 150,000 applicants will not receive an offer of a university place at all - and many more will be disappointed in not being offered a place either at the university, or in the subject, of their choice. (At the same time, record numbers of international students are being recruited, with numbers from China alone expected to rise by 13%. Universities charge these students the full cost of their courses, and so no government controls apply, unlike with home students.)
It therefore seems clear that the 2006 student fee arrangements have been accepted by the current generation of new undergraduates in England simply as a fact of life. The deterrent effect of student debt, insofar as it exists, has apparently been swamped by other factors in the minds of potential students. The current fee arrangements are currently under review in England: the excess demand for places this summer will surely figure largely in the government's thinking: tuition fees will surely be going up.
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