The introduction of top-up fees in 2006 marked a watershed moment for the future of Higher Education and now, two years since their increase to £9,000, we’re seeing further barriers to students coming to university. The privatisation of the student loan book was a hot topic on campus last week following the sale of loans taken out between 1990 and 1998. Despite a 12% drop in student numbers last year, it is clear that the new fee regime is not sustainable, raising concerns that the Government may sell off all student debts to private companies. More worryingly, the loan book will only sell if it is deemed ‘profitable’, and as the terms of our repayments can legally be changed at any time, there is a financial risk for students in the UK. But it’s not only home students that have something to worry about. International students are frequently discriminated by visa limitations, drastically higher fees, and the proposed Immigration Bill could turn even more students away.
An NUS survey found that over 50% felt unwelcome, and should the bill pass without amendments, heightened landlord checks and compulsory NHS charges would reinforce this message. The changes affect a minority but international student fees subsidise a lot of schemes and facilities that the University offers, having a much wider impact on university funding if numbers fall. One such subsidy is the funding made available for Access Programmes, benefitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds who would otherwise not be able to afford to come to university.
Before Christmas the National Scholarship Programme was cut and universities up and down the country were reluctant to plug the gap. Now the Government is proposing cuts to another grant available to help those from low-income families, the Student Opportunities Fund, a decision so controversial that they have delayed their budget report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Losing the fund would be a devastating blow to students so we must continue to pressure our MPs and ensure that the University values widening participation enough to cover any foreseeable shortages. Even once students have arrived, an increasing number are questioning whether or not £9,000 is really worth it.
Next year we’ll witness our first cohort of £9,000 fee-payers graduating, and although our Express Yourself research found similar attitudes to those paying £3,000, there has been a significant shift in the demand for money advice, part-time jobs and career advice, a trend that is expected to continue into the future. Money conscious students are evermore vocal about where their fees should be going – most notably; libraries, teaching facilities, career services and co-curricular activities – yet the direction of our university, posting several million pounds in profit each year, remains unclear. If teaching is a priority, why is it constantly in competition with research activity? If careers are valued, why are courses with 100% employability rates under threat of closure? And if co-curricular activities are so vital, why does the Union receive less than 1% of our tuition fees? For Higher Education to remain a valuable and viable option we must build on our partnerships and create a responsive culture for learning that shows a commitment to prioritising the needs of our students during recruitment and while they are here.