Should universities be forced to justify high fees?

July 1, 2016

A-level-college students who wish to continue their studies in the UK are up against the highest tuition fees in history, with rumours of the £9,000 ceiling being scrapped. But a recently leaked memo suggests there is some concern about whether high fees match the quality of teaching being provided by some institutions. When we also take into account a newly published education white paper outlining potential changes to how universities receive funding, it is likely that we may find ourselves having a long overdue conversation about whether students are receiving value for money and what can be done to ensure that they do.
Universities fees

Funding through tuition fees and lifting student quota controls has exposed areas in which some universities have been falling short. Should the reforms outlined in the White Paper go ahead, those that struggle to recruit students will not have the security of government bailouts to fall back on. Instead, the floor will be opened up to more creative approaches to higher education, and private institutions will be able to use the opportunity to offer courses that have been proven to lead to high-paying jobs. This will force low performing universities to rethink their game plan in order to fit into what will become an even more competitive education market.

Although transparency and tougher standards are a step in the right direction, there may be some students that lose out in the process. Many of the universities that will struggle financially recruit heavily from disadvantaged areas, and offer courses that cater to students more suited to healthcare and public service sectors. If they can no longer afford to provide these courses, many students will be left to consider alternative routes to their chosen fields.

Allowing all universities to charge the maximum fee is not the answer, as the quality of education being provided by some schools has already been called into question. The next logical step should be to devise a way to force universities to justify the proposed fees, especially if they wish to charge at the upper end of the scale. But what should be taken into consideration?

As well as results, research into the percentage of a university’s graduates that go on to work in fields relevant to their course would be useful. This would give some indication as to whether a school is preparing its students for related roles within the workforce, although many degrees are transferable to different industries. Student experience should also be high on the list of priorities. No two students can be guaranteed the same experience due to many contributing factors, but the key is to determine what an institution has put in place to ensure a positive impact from their side.

Quality of teaching has been noted as one of the biggest causes for concern, yet it is incredibly difficult to measure accurately. This is largely due to the fact that even after much discussion, there has been no agreement on how best to define it. Grades can give some indication as to how well a teacher is performing, but can only paint part of the picture.

Should the proposed changes go ahead, we can expect a period of adjustment as we get used to yet another upheaval in the higher education system. The best-case scenario would be to put power in the hands of students as consumers, with a clear idea of what they are getting for their money. Universities would not be able to charge high prices without first being able to justify them, meeting specific criteria for each band of fees. At worse, we will see a shift towards a business model in which education is provided by the highest bidder, leaving those who cannot afford it by the wayside.

Source: The TelegraphHigher Education White Paper – The big changes