You can still afford to go to University. That was the resounding message from the panel of experts at Birmingham’s launch of National Student Finance Day today.
The local event, spearheaded and hosted by Birmingham City University, was attended by over 80 teachers, parents and pupils from seven of the region’s schools and colleges. Events are being held up and down the country as part of the first ever National Student Finance Day, which has been initiated by the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance.
Former NUS Presidents Aaron Porter and Wes Streeting joined Birmingham City University Vice-Chancellor Professor David Tidmarsh, Aston University Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Higson, University of Birmingham Guild President Mark Harrop and BCU’s Director of Student Services Pamela Bell-Ashe to share their views on the new system of student finance to be implemented in 2012.
Wes Streeting, Deputy Head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance, announced a raft of new information, including a mobile phone app ‘unifees2012‘, with helpful hints and plain-speaking guidance on student finances now available at www.unifees2012.com.
The main advice given to the audience was to ’do your homework’ when you are considering university - to find out as much information as possible from the universities themselves, from the many user review websites and sources like moneysavingexpert.com. Aaron Porter was quick to stress that “visiting universities is the best way to get a sense of whether going to university is the right decision for you”.
A quick straw poll of the audience by David Tidmarsh, whose daughter is in the process of applying to university, revealed that there are a number of individuals who feel uncertain about the new finance arrangements and as such are having second thoughts about university. David summed up the panel’s feelings when he said it would be a terrible shame if people were put off going to university because of the cost, not only for the individuals themselves, but also because of the serious impact it will have on the country’s economy and skills capabilities.
Aaron felt that the natural ‘complexity’ of the funding arrangements was to blame for the confusion and misunderstanding. Research conducted recently by the Independent Taskforce found that 59% of people in England have little or no understanding of the new fee arrangements. One college said that many of its students were now giving real consideration as to whether or not to go to university because of the rising cost.
Mark Harrop viewed this tendency towards greater consideration as one of the positives of the changes to the system. He said that individuals are more likely to spend more time researching their options to find the course and the university that is right for them, which can only be a good thing. Helen Higson felt that another positive would be the focus by universities in delivering better teaching and learning and providing more financial incentives to help those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds.
Speaking about the practicalities of the new student finance arrangements, Wes noted that “students under the new regime will actually pay less in monthly repayments than students currently do now”. He relayed some of the key facts of the new system - that students don't have to pay anything up front, they will only start repaying when they are earning above £21,000 and will then only pay 9% of anything over £21,000. He pointed out that the debt is written off after 30 years and that the monthly repayments are the same regardless of whether the tuition fee is £6,000 or £9,000.
One prospective student raised concerns about the size of debt that would be accrued. Wes acknowledged that if fees were higher and the debt was therefore larger, students would be paying it off over a longer period of time, but he re-iterated the fact that the debt is wiped out after 30 years. David added that this is where 'value for money' comes into the equasion; students should be looking at what they are getting for the different fees being charged.
Another concern from the audience related to portraying the value of Higher Education over a lifetime. One college tutor, who is a strong advocate of university education, shared his own experience of leaving school with two GCSEs and now being in his fifties with a son who, by comparison, has recently graduated and is now earning £30 per hour, which is more than he has ever earned. “I wish I’d known then what I know now” were his words of advice to the many prospective students in the room.
Answering the question of value, Aaron explained that the standard figures given are that graduates will on average earn around £100,000 more than their non-graduate counterparts over a career, but for some professions, such as doctors or lawyers, the sums are even greater. Wes added that while there has been much publicity about unemployment, it is important to remember that while there is 20% youth unemployment, the outlook for graduates is actually more positive with around 10% unemployment for those aged 21 and over. “There’s never been a better time to be in education or training,” he advised, though he did stress that this didn’t just mean a university education and that young people should consider other options, like college or apprenticeships.
There was concern raised about the fact that some universities are seeking to change their fees and how individuals would be able to find out which universities were doing this. Aaron said that he was working with the Office of Fair Access, which was currently considering how best to relay the information without providing an unfair advantage to those universities who will effectively be announcing their fees for a second time. Helen also pointed out that universities will not be able to disadvantage students when changing their fees.
One prospective student raised the issue of studying abroad with many universities in Europe offering substantially lower fees. Pamela said that those considering studying abroad should do their research in the same way they would if they were looking at a British university - to make sure the course is taught in English, to investigate the teaching and learning quality and so on. David added that if prospective students are looking at European universities they should be asking how many students usually complete their studies and the time it takes to complete study as this is often longer in Europe.
Understanding whether fee arrangements will change once a student begins studying was one parent’s primary concern. Pamela pointed out the fee regime under which student first enter higher education will remain throughout their studies. Other than inflationary rises, the cost will not increase substantially and the same financial regulations will apply throughout the duration of study.
And finally the point was made that universities are fairly good at targeting prospective students with information, but that it is parents and teachers who have a real influence over the end decision. One parent was worried that if parents or teachers don’t fully understand the implications of the new fee system, they could deter individuals from going to university because of the worry of debt. Helen said that in Birmingham four of the universities have teamed up to ensure that the work of Aimhigher continues which provides information and activities to schools and colleges. She added that most universities already work with schools and colleges and are increasingly providing tailored information for parents too. Parents were urged to visit the university websites; Birmingham City University offers a Parents’ Guide (see