Recently released HEPI research shows students are ‘unconvinced’ about the appeal of the Augar Review’s reforms to HE student finance, with perhaps the THE summarising it best with their headline ‘Lower Tuition Fees? Meh’ (Daily email bulletin, 10 October 2019).
The research, based on a survey of over 1,000 full-time undergraduate students by YouthSight, showed almost identical proportions preferring the ‘new’ system of £7,500 tuition fees paid back over 40 years compared to the current system of £9,250 fees paid back over 30 years (the reforms are of course more complicated than that, but more of that later).
This inability of the reforms to ‘move the dial’ and gather a real groundswell of support among students is, in my view, unsurprising, and, if anything, the biggest surprise to me was that only 18% said they had no preference either way. Here’s why:
1. Most undergraduates have far more pressing concerns
The HEPI research confirmed what I have consistently seen in research I have carried out among undergraduates – day-to-day cost of living is a far more immediate worry than the level of tuition fees (59% cite it as the higher priority in the HEPI research, vs. 18% citing tuition fees). Thinking about paying for increasingly expensive student accommodation, the cost of train travel home in the holidays, whether to take a term-time job, or how to secure a summer internship understandably weigh more heavily on students’ minds than the elephantine size of their future, intangible student debt.
2 For many, the differences are hypothetical
The headline changes recommended in the Review were to the level of tuition fees, which students don’t currently pay in any meaningful day-to-day sense, and the maximum length over which students would be expected to repay loans. Understandably, telling a student under the new terms they could still be repaying their loans in 2051, as opposed to stopping repayments in 2050, is not something that would typically vex the average 20-year-old. And importantly, the one thing the Review did not suggest changing is the unofficial ‘tax rate’, or the rate of repayments, currently 9%, which for an undergraduate thinking about their imminent standard of living is arguably the key figure.
3 It’s actually an unrealistic trade-off to make
I must admit I haven’t seen the exact wording of the survey (though I'm sure YouthSight did a thoroughly professional job), but whether or not a student should prefer one system over the other depends on their expectation of starting salary (a year or two away) as well as their expectation of lifetime earnings (5, 10, 20 or even 30 years away), let alone factoring in relevant changes in the future political landscape.
Indeed, given all this, you might rationally expect even more students to have just said ‘Meh’.
None of this, of course, is to say the reforms aren’t meaningful, but more to admit that students were not centre-stage when it came to intended stakeholders. The potential near-term implications were always going to create more debate, discussion and potential impact among those running universities, politicians and HE Wonks than students themselves. Which, in my view, is a shame.
Alan Terry is a research expert for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education and beyond.