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'Students as consumers' by Education journalist Sean Coughlan

Posted by Tribal Group on December 2, 2015

University students in England unhappy at having to pay higher tuition fees might not be very impressed at the idea of silver linings. But the increased cost has given them more consumer power than ever before.

It has also created a greater incentive to consider international options. If you’re being charged £9,000 a year for a university in England it is no longer such a big leap to think about studying in the United States or in Europe.

England has the highest tuition fees in Europe and it’s encouraging students to widen their horizons and look at higher education as a global landscape.

In terms of attracting overseas students, the United States is the biggest global market. The lure of its famous institutions, still dominating the top of global league tables, is currently drawing almost 900,000 students from around the world, the highest ever level.

And since tuition fees were increased in 2012, more UK students have been heading across the Atlantic. Last year’s figures showed almost 10,200 UK students at US universities, an annual increase of 8%. According to the US Department of Commerce this academic migration from the UK was worth £220m per year to the US economy.

But the big question is what happens next. Even with the fee-inspired spike in applications to the US, it’s still uncertain whether this is going to be a tide that keeps on rising or a temporary  surge.

Because for decades one of the most distinctive characteristics of UK students has been their reluctance to study overseas. They have been world leaders in insularity. And UK students remain a relatively small slice of the overseas market.

To put it into perspective, the 10,200 UK students in the US are small-fry compared with 270,000 students from China and 103,000 from India. And for every UK student going to the US, there are three times as many US students going in the opposite direction. And for every UK student in Germany, there are more than 10 Germans at universities in the UK.

But could the arrival of higher fees be a game-changer? Could the homesick UK students finally begin to find an appetite for travel?

A survey of private school head teachers recently reported that almost all of them had seen an increase in pupils wanting to study overseas.

The US remains the most popular destination for UK students, but it’s not about saving money, because top-rated universities can cost £40,000 per year. The incentive is more likely to be an expectation that studying abroad will improve young people’s chances in a globalised jobs market.

Where the cost of fees could really be significantly cheaper is Europe.

While universities in England have pushed up the cost of tuition, in Germany it’s gone in the opposite direction, completely getting rid of fees this academic year. And an increasing number of courses are offered in the English language.

Among the most energetic recruiters of UK students are universities in the Netherlands which provide courses in English with tuition fees of about £1,500. Maastricht University has reported a big increase in UK students.

Scandinavian countries have also been appealing to international students with courses taught in English with low or no fees. Even universities in France, once a bastion of opposition to Anglophone education, are beginning to teach courses in English.

But there’s no such thing as a free lecture.

Almost every country in the developed world is facing a university funding dilemma. They want more graduates, but who is going to pay for extra university places? How much, if anything, should individual students be expected to contribute?

It raises far-reaching and controversial political questions. Should higher education be free and available to all, without any price tag? And should this be extended to overseas students or should they be seen as a lucrative way of subsidising home students?

There are cultural factors here too - with a spectrum that stretches from a liberal Scandinavian free education model all the way to the unfettered market-driven approach of the US.

And it’s certainly big business. Overseas students coming to study in Australia are worth £8.5bn, making them the country’s fourth biggest export industry, lining up behind iron ore, coal and natural gas.

The rise of consumerism is also changing attitudes within UK universities.

The most visible evidence is the wave of new buildings appearing on campuses, as universities want to impress their young visitors on open days. Barely a week passes without another multi-million pound library or hotel-style accommodation block being announced.

Student pressure means that many university libraries are open 24-hours a day during exam seasons.

This isn’t just about competition, it’s a question of survival. Universities really need to attract students, because without their fees, courses and departments can cease to be financially viable.

As well as upgrading the campus, universities are putting much more effort into capturing the attention of would-be applicants. Websites and social media are the shop windows for universities. It’s also affected the application process with some universities now offering strategic unconditional offers, to encourage students to make a commitment.

The UK’s application process itself has been targeted by overseas recruiters, with Dutch universities wanting to join the UCAS admissions system.

But what remains unresolved is how much consumer power is affecting the quality of what’s offered to students. Contact hours - the numbers of hours students spend being taught by staff - can still seem stubbornly low. If students are paying £9,000 per year is it enough to only have five hours teaching per week?

There are much more vocal questions being asked about value for money, which would have been alien to a previous generation of grant-receiving, non-fee paying youngsters. Academics report that students are quick to complain if they don’t get what they’ve been promised, whether it’s laboratory equipment or a star lecturer. The intellectual experience is now also a contractual experience.

University staff report a much more interventionist role from so-called “helicopter parents”, who hover over the children they are bankrolling through their studies. It’s no longer unheard of for parents to want to sit in on university interviews or to ring up to challenge a poor grade.

And will digital technology play a bigger part in the cost equation?Universities, particularly in the United States, have been experimenting with online learning and there are online resources, such as the academic arm of iTunes, which have thousands of hours of lectures and course material free to download. Will the cost of tuition and the availability of so much information online begin to fuel an argument for shorter, cheaper and more efficient courses?

As online learning becomes more sophisticated it also raises the prospect of a more globalised approach - perhaps US universities could reach directly to teach students in the UK, adding another layer of competition.

But a counter-intuitive aspect of the new consumer market is that so far the fee level has not proved to be a major influence on applications. The numbers of young people wanting to get into university are at record levels, despite the hike in fees, including among those from the poorest families.

The deep-rooted rising demand for university seems to have been stronger than the deterrent factor of the higher fees. And where fees have been lower for individual courses or institutions, it doesn’t seem to have had an impact on the choices of applicants.

These are still early days to see how the student market will develop - the first students paying the higher fees have still to graduate.

But there are patterns emerging. Students are likely to push for more value for money and competition is going to be increasingly globalised. Consumerism will be arriving, if at first only by degrees.

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Topics: Higher Education