Reporter 413, 26 January 1998

Troubled times loom for British higher education

Confusion over the introduction of tuition fees has contributed to a nationwide drop in university applications, believes Vice-Chancellor Professor Alan Wilson. He has also expressed serious concerns over the lack of Government information about how the fees will work in practice.

Universities and local authorities are expected to play a key role in assessing contributions to fees, but little guidance has been given on the implementation of the new scheme. The administration cost to Leeds is estimated at £250,000 in the first year and £100,000 a year thereafter.

While Leeds is maintaining its appeal to prospective students, with more applications for 1998 entry than any other institution, it has seen an overall decline of 3 per cent. Nationally the picture is even worse, with a fall of more than 6 per cent in applications. Some ‘new’ universities are attempting to stave off a shortfall of admissions next autumn by urging students to enrol before spring to beat the introduction of tuition, it was reported this month.

The principal justification for the introduction of fees – that they are necessary to safeguard the quality of higher education – has not been upheld as universities still face a funding shortfall of £800m over the next three years. There will be less money spent on each HE student in 1998/99 than this year, despite student contributions to tuition fees and some additional funding announced last September. The Vice-Chancellor said the Government had ignored the effect tuition fees will have on widening access – one of the concerns raised by Dearing.

Steps to address the under-representation of less well-off students are being taken by members of British universities and colleges who have joined forces to identify those initiatives most successful at widening access. Professor Richard Taylor, Director of the School of Continuing Education, has been appointed to the steering group of the Good Practice in Widening Access to Higher Education project, a CVCP initiative in conjunction with the HE funding councils and others, which will disseminate its findings in June.

A reminder to the Government of its ‘education education education’ pledge has come from the Association of University Teachers, which argues that it is vital for the Government to create a stable system of funding for HE after spending on staff pay was revealed to be proportionately lower than in any other OECD country.

• Further trouble for the HE sector has been brought by the financial crisis in South East Asia. The University has set up a task force to examine the impact on the recruitment of international students. The countries most affected are Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea – more than 600 students from these countries are currently at Leeds.

Most Indonesian students are financed through projects supported in US dollars and are less likely to be affected but in Malaysia, where the currency has fallen in value by 50% since 1996, the government has removed the tax incentives for privately-funded study abroad. This move is likely to have serious implications for British universities – there were nearly 18,000 Malaysian students in the UK in 1996/7.

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