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University Challenged - The Pandemic, Fees and Students

University Challenged - The Pandemic, Fees and Students
 Simon Marginson
Professor of Higher Education at the University of Oxford

The French Education and Research System was already facing acute challenges before the outbreak of Covid-19. The pandemic has further weakened the country’s universities, adding to the existing structural difficulties. Is the French case unique? Institut Montaigne’s series University Challenged is an attempt to compare what is happening to universities in France to universities in other countries: are they facing the same challenges? If so, are their answers to these challenges the same? Simon Marginson looks at the UK’s strategy for the UK's Higher Education and Research system and offers his analysis on how the Covid-19 pandemic has put new financial stress on the country’s universities and students. 

One factor that France and the UK have in common is that the longer term implications of the pandemic for higher education, and the nature of the post-pandemic era (if there is one), are unclear. Despite all the talk about renewal or transformations - whether self-generated, or forced on the sector by zealous governments, student disillusionment or iron necessity - there is not even the faintest trace of a reform blueprint to be seen. 

It is clear that we will have more and better online courses in the future, but students really want to return to face-to-face education for both pedagogical and social reasons. It is clear there will be more homeworking and outworking and casualization, but physical site and plant will continue. It is clear that there will be less short-haul plane flights. It is likely that there will be a highly restrictive fiscal climate, because of the public debts incurred by the government during the pandemic. Additional costs could be imposed on students in both countries - in that respect the circumstances will be like 2008-2011 - but there are electoral political limits to the extent that governments can cut university funding and increase student fees. The social and demographic pressures driving the growth of higher education in all countries will continue, especially if there is higher unemployment.

Meanwhile the pandemic has placed the now established UK financing system under pressure. In the major reform to higher education in 2012, the UK had the wisdom to underpin its mixed funded higher education system by income contingent student loans, the system of tuition funding that is recommended by Institut Montaigne for France. This is the most equitable way of expanding mass higher education without imposing additional costs on the public budget. It is gender friendly, and mildly progressive in its redistributive effects.

The UK had the wisdom to underpin its mixed funded higher education system by income contingent student loans, the system of tuition funding that is recommended by Institut Montaigne for France. 

The scheme is structured so that former students do not have to pay back the costs of their tuition until their incomes reached the threshold that triggered repayment through the tax system. This means that graduates can choose to have children or work in low-income occupations without penalty, and repayment through taxation means that at no stage do either students or graduates have to pay for tuition costs in cash terms. The impact of tuition charges on access is negligible and higher education enrolments have continued to grow, except for part-time students obliged to pay during the year of study. This financial structure has allowed the government to set a high standard fee, now £9250 per annum. 

The government subsidizes STEM programs directly to a modest extent, but there are no direct subsidies in other disciplines, so costs are nominally covered by the students. However, because repayment only takes place when the income threshold is reached, and debts are retired after 20 years, it is expected that a little more than half of all tuition costs will be finally paid by the former students. The level of continuing government funding is sizeable, and with public debt mounting by £8-10 billion per annum, due to tuition loans alone, and with the total level of public borrowing having increased massively during the pandemic period, Treasury is now looking for ways to reduce the burden. In a user-pays system, the pressure from the economic departments of government to transfer more of the cost onto the user does not go away - something worth keeping in mind in France.

The government has two solutions in mind. One is to reduce the level of the standard tuition fee. Two years ago, the Augar committee on post-secondary financing recommended a cut in the fee to £7500, pointing to significant numbers of graduates whose starting salaries are relatively low. Courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences in some institutions have been stigmatized as "low value courses". At the time of writing, an early announcement on fees was being anticipated with dread by universities. This would create severe downward pressures on quality, especially in lower tier universities, and push the sector into increasing its dependence on foreign student fees, despite the risks entailed.

The government’s other solution is to propel part of the higher education enrolment towards cheaper sub-degree Further Education colleges. The government has already announced that it will facilitate such a movement by introducing a four-year lifelong learning entitlement on the income contingent loan basis. This has redoubled the Treasury’s motivation to secure a cut in higher education fees, so as to contain the total public costs of income contingent loans. The government’s growing disenchantment with the expansion of university education is showing also in its loss of enthusiasm for building the participation of first-in-family students through modified admissions criteria and foundation year provision. It wants prospective students from poorer parts of the country, under-represented in higher education, to shift their aspirations from higher education to "less prestigious" courses. 

Whether the government can succeed in doing so remains to be seen. All the signs are that people want more, not less higher education, a desire no doubt enhanced by the lack of youth employment during the pandemic. The Covid-19 period has seen a surge in both domestic student and international student demand. Remarkably, international enrolment increased by 7% in 2020-21 despite the pandemic, reflecting both the vigor of university marketing and the high demand for the UK. This was despite the fact that face to face education has been closed down for long periods, and the 2020-21 academic year opened with many student residences closed or in quarantine.

Remarkably, international enrolment increased by 7% in 2020-21 despite the pandemic, reflecting both the vigor of university marketing and the high demand for the UK.

While demand is more robust in the upper tiers of the UK’s highly stratified system, and administrative costs in domains such as communications and recruitment have increased, at this point of time no university in the market system has gone under. 

With the government refusing to provide financial guarantees in the UK’s market-based system, institutions have worked hard at retooling both pedagogy and administration. Amid a spike in staff workloads, online education on the whole appears to have been handled well in the UK. Survey evidence however indicates that at least one student in five lacks adequate access outside the university setting, due to poor Internet receptivity or, often, lack of computing. This period has seen an upsurge in formal and informal student activism. The desire for face to face sociability inside and outside the classroom has been powerful and evident. Many students face significant financial difficulties: the UK’s 2016 abolition of the system of maintenance grants has not served them well. It is good to see Institut Montaigne addressing the issue of student support: there’s a chance that might trigger rethinking in the UK, though the country is often lamentably slow to borrow good ideas from France. 

The government has the main levers under its control - total funding, fee levels and student support funding - but has been happy to sit back and let universities and students slug it out. Universities positioned as quasi-corporations and treating their students as customers can generate bad faith. Concerned about protecting enrolments in the market, many universities oversold the potential for a "near normal" experience at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year. Students unable to access classes have organized to demand fee remission or rent remission. Some rent relief has been granted by individual universities. Similar patterns might be unfolding for the 2021-22 academic year. Institutions are optimistic about reopening, and vaccination is rolling out rapidly in the UK but inward travel to the UK has never ceased at any stage of the pandemic, and the virulent Indian variants of Covid-19 are now spreading rapidly. The potential for one more autumn shutdown of the country, and the universities, is real. It is likely that heightened student awareness and organizing, and some bitterness and estrangement, will be ongoing legacies of the pandemic period. 


Copyright: Oli SCARFF / AFP

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