Much has been said about the (potential) impact of recent higher education policies of the English government, particularly regarding the effects of the increased fees on student access and participation and on the higher education institutions’ budgets. Now closer to the date—from September 2012—it is worthwhile to take stock.
Taking the Browne report Securing a sustainable future for higher education (independent review, October 2010), the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review (November 2010) and the policy paper Students at the Heart of the System (June 2011) together, it seemed that the English higher education system was on the brink of revolutionary change. Within a year, significant changes were proposed pertaining to the financial support for students (no up-front costs for students; means-tested maintenance grants; loans to be repaid after graduation after achieving a specified income level; institutional discretion to charge undergraduate fees up to £ 9,000 provided conditions regarding widening participation and fair access were met; the allocation of 85,000 student places across institutions available on a competitive basis for students scoring AAB or above for their A-levels; and teaching grants for universities but with significant reduction of funding for humanities and social sciences. In all, the cutbacks would amount to an 18% decrease in the overall higher education and research budget for 2012/13.
Some of the effects of the policies were predictable. In December 2010, almost 600,000 students applied for September 2011 places, a record since the mid-1960s and a 5% increase compared to the previous year. Also a clear sign of students trying to avoid the higher fee levels anticipated for 2012. The government expected that institutions would set fees across a range of £ 6,000 – £ 9,000, reflecting in one way or another the different ‘qualities’ offered. But many observers were right to predict that most institutions would set fees close to the upper limit because this is exactly what happened almost a decade ago when upper fee levels were set at £ 3,000. Setting lower fees would have been– in the eyes of the institutions – a sign of admitting that quality was poor …
Other impact was more difficult to predict. The University and College Union (UCU) predicted that about one-third of the institutions would risk closure. It may be too soon to judge this prediction, but that institutions suffer financially is clear. The funding council (HEFCE) has just announced the student numbers and governmental budgets for next year, showing that some institutions will see their enrolments decrease by more than 10% and at some institutions the direct grant will drop by more than 40%. Apparently institutions that are teaching-oriented are more likely to suffer cuts and, to a lesser extent, the research-intensive institutions. But even Cambridge and Oxford have to deal with a decrease of governmental funding of 4.1% and 4.9%, respectively. It also appears that the humanities are becoming less popular.
Much less is known about the longer-term impact. Two potential consequences are noteworthy. First, will English students look for study opportunities outside of England? There are indications that the fee levels impact student choice within the UK (Wales, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland), but there are also suggestions that students – possibly the most affluent as their enrolment numbers dropped significantly in 2012/13 – will look abroad for an undergraduate degree. Studying in continental Europe is becoming a more appealing alternative for English students, for most European systems have adopted a similar undergraduate-graduate degree structure and set much lower fees if any fees at all. Some Dutch universities have recently witnessed increasing interest from English students and this may well be the start of a trend. Admittedly, the average English student is not known for his/her foreign language skills, but language barrier has diminished as many continental European universities have started offering their degrees in English. It is important to monitor these potential changes, for they will have significant consequences for the mobility dynamics within Europe, especially the costs involved for sending (but more importantly for receiving) countries (see e.g. a paper by Kwikkers and Van Wageningen in Higher Education Policy, March 2012).
Second, how will other countries respond? For better or for worse, the UK has always been looked upon as setting examples for other countries. It is not only the Anglo-Saxon countries (Australia, New Zealand) that have followed UK higher education policy ideas. Continental European governments will have to find solutions to their economic problems as well and higher education (and research) will not escape cutbacks. It remains to be seen whether they will – after seeing the impact of the English experiment – follow the English example or stick to their domestic traditions of low or no fees and continue to protect the humanities and social sciences. If they do not follow the English policies, it may well be that we will witness higher levels of intra-European mobility. If they do not, students and higher education institutions will likely be the long-term victims of shifting governmental policies. Students will face high fees and debt across the whole of Europe and institutions will have to deal with decreasing student numbers and a much smaller portfolio of the degrees and disciplines they can offer.