Tough decisions for school leavers
by Holly Wicks, Senior Consultant

This week, another cohort of young adults experiences the emotional rollercoaster of A-level results day. One of the biggest decisions they will have to make is not where to study, but whether to continue studying at all.

School leavers are caught up in an ongoing game playing out in Britain’s Higher Education sector: the need for our universities to demonstrate research and teaching excellence versus the increasing financial cost to students of maintaining those levels of excellence.

Indeed, education can be a plaything in any parliament, a set of knotty problems that do not lend themselves to straightforward, future-proof solutions. The current government’s ongoing reforms span Early Years to Primary and Secondary schools to Further and Higher Education.

As part of that, universities have been asked to provide more evidence to justify reallocation of money and the subsequent impact on student debt. First came the REF (Research Excellence Framework), now the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) – both designed to demonstrate impact. Whilst universities jump through hoops to showcase the UK’s prestige as an education leader, the risk is that they forget the students themselves.

The ripple effect: global influence of UK universities

In terms of global educational prestige, the UK is second only to the United States in the Portland/ComRes Soft Power Index, which recognises the power of education for public diplomacy, cultural exchange and economic development. This is instrumental in the UK’s influence globally, attracting students from across the globe to our higher education centres, and boosting the reputation of the UK as a result.

Soft Power Index

Since the increase in tuition fees, full-time undergraduate numbers have so far been largely unaffected. This is not to say that the impact has not been felt by students, though. On the contrary, each piece of research we have conducted among young people about post-18 education and training cites cost as the biggest barrier to higher education.

Fees-ability – justifying the costs of HE

In light of this, one of the biggest issues affecting the sector is value for money. Just 52% of final year undergraduates say that their degree provided them with value for money. Notably, this was the first cohort to pay £9,000 tuition fees.

Scotland provides an interesting comparison case, having avoided expensive tuition fees: 79% of those who studied in Scotland say that their degree has been value for money.

Perceived value for money in education is higher in Scotland

Base: All final year students at university in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (n=902); All final year students at university in Scotland (n=102)

Although in real terms there is a reported gap between the amount of money universities receive and the cost to educate a student, the transfer of money from the government to the end-user may be driving a shift in perception among students. When you buy a first class ticket, you expect first class service.

Transferring debt to students comes at a price. Successive governments have plugged the university funding gap with tuition fees, but in doing so may have raised expectations among current students, and changed the variables in the cost-benefit equation for this week’s school leavers.