Will rising fees really stop students going to university?

By James Riches

It is just over a year since thousands of students took to the streets to protest against government plans to triple tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year.

Angry young people loudly voiced their displeasure at the prospect of decades of debt totalling over £40,000, once maintenance loans are factored in.

However, 12 months on, and with the fees rise due to kick in next year, has it actually stopped students from applying, as some predicted?

I asked this year’s school leavers how the rise had affected their decision whether or not to attend university, and heard their reaction to being left with three times more debt than those just one year ahead of them.

After all the initial fuss, is it really that big a deal?

Certainly it appears the stance has softened for some. Few students found the fees rise more difficult to swallow than Liberal Democrat voters.

Their party infamously pledged to oppose any rise in tuition fees, and it was the reversal of this decision that arguably proved the catalyst for the 2010 demonstration.

Despite that, Sarah Harding of the Liberal Youth Society at University of Manchester (UoM) says that since attending those protests, the group has made “more constructive attempts” to show their displeasure.

These include lobbying Westminster and media appearances to get their opinion across, chiefly that higher education should be paid for through general taxation.

Naturally, Labour students are more forceful in their opposition. Matthew Fright was an executive member of Manchester Labour Students during his studies, and has gone on to study further at Cambridge.

“It is an eye-watering level to pay founded upon dubious stats,” he said.

“It cannot be right that my parents’ generation were educated for free, my brother’s generation paid £1,500 per year, I paid £3,000 and my neighbours will pay triple that.”

UoM’s other main political society, Conservative Future, were unavailable for comment.

Issues with the system are manifold. Many students have observed that, despite paying more, they will not see an improvement in education standards.

The view that young people from poorer families will be put off applying continues to linger, as does the feeling that humanities and arts degrees, which have already suffered substantial cuts in funding, will see a fall in application numbers.

Neeraja Sankar of UoM’s International Business, Finance and Economics Society said: “In general, students are quite unhappy about the fee rise, as they see no point in it if it does not directly translate into better quality of education and better facilities for the students.”

This view is echoed by many UoM societies. Stan Reinholds of Manchester Entrepreneurs said: “The main concern is around family members. Having brothers and sisters going into higher education that is not delivering the quality that is actually needed is the major concern.”

 Biology student Martin Carroll added: “I think the fee rise is stupid to be honest. They talk about increasing attendance of people from poorer families but then triple the cost of actually going.”

 However, despite these concerns, it seems that many students are still prepared to take the university route, while recent graduates claim higher fees would not have changed their decision to go into higher education.

“There will always be help available for the fees and hopefully, a degree will lead to a job in which you can pay back the money,” said Elizabeth Preece, who starts a £9,000 a year music degree next year.

However, she admits that people she knows have deferred entry for a year in order to raise money to pay for their degree.

“I think universities will lose students if they continue the fee increase and will be worse off for it,” she said.

Former students seemed to agree that they would still have gone to university if they had faced the higher fees, regardless of their chosen degree.

French and Italian graduate James Hammacott hopes to study for a Masters, and whilst he expressed concerns that postgraduate study was made more difficult by the fees rise, he admitted it would have had no bearing on his decision to choose university.

He said: “I and many others would take the attitude of ‘in for a penny in for a pound’. In times of lower fees I would have been lumbered with an overwhelming debt anyway, why not lump a few more thousand on top?”

Chemical Engineering graduate Sam Helliwell added: “I would definitely still have gone; I just would have been a bit grumpier about fees afterwards. It’ll pay for itself eventually.”

The University of Manchester declined to speculate on whether application numbers would suffer in the wake of the rise, but they did provide figures for the last two academic years.

These revealed a rise of just 1% across all schools over the two years. In fact, only the Faculty of Life Sciences saw any movement at all, a 13% increase in applications.

This steady rate will make any potential decrease seem even starker, with UCAS figures revealing a national increase in applications of just 2.1% for the current year, compared with 15.3% between 2009 and 2010.

However, it does not necessarily have to be all about money.

If students are to forego the prospect of a university education, some have their own theory as to why.

“The truth is that University is not about education anymore, it’s all about getting a job and it is clearly failing to deliver what is promised,” said Mr Reinholds, citing high unemployment figures.

Mr Fright added: “Institutions which have stood for centuries to further advance human knowledge are being debased into qualification ejaculating bodies whose sole aim is to equip their students with a piece of paper to get a job.”

If that is true, it seems it is enough for a lot of students. While there are apparently plenty of reasons for young people to shy away from university, it appears many are prepared to battle on in an attempt to achieve their aims.

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