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In 2012, a significant shift in the way universities and colleges are funded took place. From this academic year, students starting university are meeting much of the cost of their education themselves, with access to publicly funded loans, and universities can charge up to £9,000 a year for their courses.
Changes to the rules on how many students a university can recruit are designed to meet the Government’s aims of increased dynamism and student choice.
In light of these changes, among other issues, we ask the following: Have higher fees discouraged students from going to university? What choices are students making? How are universities and colleges affected? Is the system more dynamic?
It will, of course, be some time before we have full answers to these questions. At this early stage, it is impossible to separate short-term volatility from longer-term trends.
That said, a number of important issues are already emerging which require immediate attention.
- Part-time learners
Higher education provision for part-time learners is one such issue. There has been a dramatic decline in the numbers of entrants to part-time courses over the past couple of years. We need to understand why, and to support action where necessary.
We will also be monitoring take-up of postgraduate courses. We want to find out as soon as possible whether the 2012-13 intake – the first cohort of students to pay higher fees – is likely to be put off postgraduate study because of their undergraduate debt.
We will also be looking carefully at the impact of the changes on students from disadvantaged backgrounds and other groups.
There is greater focus on HEFCE-funded higher education institutions and further education colleges in the report simply because we have more information and data in this area. In future we will broaden our knowledge and experience of other higher education providers in England.
Higher education is one of the nation’s most valuable assets. It enriches and inspires. It transforms people’s lives. It brings huge economic, social and cultural benefits.
Many of our universities and colleges are world-class, and the research, science and innovation they generate are central to the Government’s growth strategy.
We suggest that if the sector is to maintain and increase its competitive edge, it will be important to keep the balance of public and private investment under constant review.
The funding reforms are a means to an end. Ultimately, they must be judged on:
- the quality of learning and teaching and of the student experience
- the capacity to undertake speculative, ground-breaking research
- the ability to build on an enviable record of knowledge exchange, tackling societal problems and promoting economic growth.
Working closely with others, we will continue to monitor the issues in this report, leading the oversight of higher education in England, and promoting the public and the collective student interest.
This is the first of a series of reports which we hope will stimulate thought, discussion and positive action to further enhance higher education in England.