End of the great tuition fee scare

Universities are still filling up, despite the newly introduced pounds 1,000 annual tuition fee. Lucy Hodges examines why
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The Independent Online
Why is it that the doom mongers have been proved wrong and that students still sign up for university despite the introduction this autumn of the pounds 1,000 tuition fee? Nationally, figures show there has been no fall-off in the numbers applying to higher education as young people scramble to get a toehold in what is called "the knowledge society". There has been no fall in young people applying to university from the lower socio- economic groups and there has even been a rise in the number of English students applying for and being accepted by Scottish universities - something which was not expected at all. Degrees north of the border take four years, so students have to pay the pounds 1,000 fee for four years instead of three.

"I think that most students, particularly those leaving school, understand that their chances of a successful and satisfying career are enhanced by going to university," says Martin Harris, chairman of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals which is holding its annual conference this week in Manchester. "Their families are prepared to make the extra investment that will help them to achieve that goal."

Most other university bosses agree. "People want higher education," says Lesley Wagner, principal of Leeds Metropolitan University. "It's become almost essential now for any decent career and you can have a nice time for three years while you're studying - certainly in Leeds."

However, within this "good news" story, there is a more complicated picture. Although applications from traditional 18-year-old students have held up, those from adults over 21 have declined. That, in itself, reflects a trend, because applications from adults have been on the decline for a number of years. But the drop is slightly bigger this year. It is possible that the pounds 1,000 fee has acted as a deterrent, though it's also possible that the demand from adults for university eduction has become saturated.

Second, students' tastes are changing, according to Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Whereas, in the past, they might have chosen a degree leading to one of the "caring" professions such as teaching, social work and nursing, increasingly they are opting for courses that will take them directly into well-paying jobs, such as computing.

That shift may be related to the fees, the phasing out of grants and the student loan scheme, says Higgins. "Students know they'll have a bigger debt to pay off at the end of their graduation, so maybe they're taking subjects that will help them."

Perhaps reflecting this trend, some universities, notably the former polytechnics, are suffering a drop in applications this year - just as some experts predicted. The pattern seems to be that they are being hit in the social sciences and humanities, subjects which are not narrowly vocational and do not lead directly into work. That change is exactly what experts such as Alan Smithers, the Sydney Jones Professor of Education at Liverpool University, predicted would happen in the new higher education marketplace.

The University of East London, for example, is experiencing a drop in demand for degrees in social sciences, including economics and anthropology, and a drift instead to business studies. The university's vice chancellor, Frank Gould, sees it as part of a trend. Students are beginning to opt for vocational degrees, he thinks. Subjects being hit are sociology, cultural studies and the humanities - but not English.

The University of Hertfordshire, formerly Hatfield Polytechnic, is finding applications down in exactly the same areas, though its overall application numbers are holding up. "We're also seeing problems - really for the first time - in humanities," says Dr Stephen Boffey, director of admissions. "There's one explanation which is that we have quite a lot of mature students on our humanities course and mature students are being hit by the fees. But we're not doing at all badly in other areas. Computing is bursting and we're also finding that we're doing very well in sciences, which surprised us, and we're pretty well hitting targets with engineering, which again is going against the trends."

In the course of the applications round this year, Dr Boffey did not find that the pounds 1,000 fee was an issue for students except that he got a lot of people wanting to be released in the clearing process to live near to home. That supports other anecdotal evidence that students (like Katie Allen, above) are choosing to attend the university near where they live to save money.

At the University of North London (UNL) it's a similar picture. Humanities, including history, philosophy, English and European studies, and social sciences have suffered, whereas the sciences have done better. "It's been very turbulent and there has been significant deterrence of mature students," says vice chancellor, Brian Roper.

"Applicants are saying: `Can I have a place and can I take it next year?' and we're saying: `Why? The fees aren't going to go away,' and they're saying: `We're going to have to save up the money'."

Applications by mature students to UNL are down 15 to 25 per cent this year, according to Roper, and that percentage is significant because the university is so heavily dependent on mature students. They form around three-quarters of the university's intake.

Roper is fed up with the university admissions system which involves students applying before their A level results and receiving offers conditional on students making specified grades. Those who don't make their grades enter the clearing system and take part in a matching procedure which match students with vacancies. The system creates uncertainty for all concerned. "We really must have a situation - I hope from next year onwards - where students are applying having their results in their hands."

New universities such as UNL were heavy users of the clearing process this year in the hope that it would fill up their courses. Indeed, last Friday, when one of The Independent's clearing supplement appeared, both old and new universities filled up 22 pages of the supplement with their offerings. Some observers have been surprised to see traditional universities such as Queen Mary and Westfield (QMW) and Royal Holloway colleges in London as well as Sussex University appearing in clearing this year at this late stage. Were they experiencing problems in finding students this year?

The new principal of QMW, Adrian Smith, was not available for comment. A spokeswoman for Royal Holloway said the college had been seeking 400 students through clearing in subjects such as history, management, computer sciences, classics, physics, maths and music. But the college had not lowered its entry requirements or been reduced to advertising. Last week it was still below target in social policy and languages. Sussex said it had not experienced particular problems but in last week's clearing supplement it was still seeking takers across a range of courses.

So, although most vice chancellors gathering in Manchester this week will be congratulating themselves on their student numbers holding up and on the work they have done to ensure students understand the new financial arrangements and the value of a degree, they will also be aware that the new marketplace in higher education could mean turbulence ahead. They are not counting their chickens.

Dr Michael Goldstein, vice chancellor of Coventry University, said his university had not yet met its targets on student numbers but expected to do so. At the same time, he couldn't be sure, just as other universities couldn't be sure, that all the students who had signed up would actually turn up when term started. "In some areas we're not sure," he said. "In some areas we're going to get withdrawals."

What Katie Did

THE DAUGHTER of a fitter and a shop assistant in Cleveland, Katie Allen, 18, was not sure she would be able to go to university when the Government announced the new financial arrangements - the pounds 1,000 tuition fee, the phasing out of the grant and the new income-contingent loans scheme. But with two A-levels under her belt and with the active support of her parents, she has decided to take up a place to study social sciences at Teeside, her local university. The big advantage of Teeside is that she can live at home and save on accommodation costs. She also has a job locally, working as a lifeguard at the swimming pool and teaching swimming, which she will continue with. She will pay her pounds 1,000 fee from the money she has saved up over the summer from her job, and with a little help from her parents. It is important to go to university, she says, because the more qualifications you have the better when it comes to a career. "I've wanted to go to university since I was young," she says. "I want to be a policewoman eventually, so I'm going to transfer in my second year to the criminology course if I can."