Claire Sanders - Analysis: What justifies a £3,000 fee?
Times Higher Education Supplement 21.2.2003

As universities consider at what level to set fees, Alison Goddard and Claire Sanders look at indicators that could influence their decisions.

In 18 months' time, English universities and colleges must produce their 2006 prospectuses setting out what they intend to charge their students.

The growing assumption that, financially, all universities and all colleges of higher education will need to charge the full top-up fee is being countered by an unwillingness among academics to do so. Some 72 per cent opposed top-up fees in a THES survey earlier this year.

Universities across the land are debating the issue. At Coventry University, vice-chancellor Mike Goldstein feared that underfunding would push universities to the top of the £3,000 limit, but he saw fees as a "huge gamble" for access and posing questions internally.

"I am asking colleagues: how are we going to decide what to charge? Clearly, we will have to take a view of the market and make judgements based on the actions of other institutions. We may want to consider regional issues," he said.

To give an idea of each institution's place in the new higher education market, The THES has compiled a set of indicators. A small number of universities appear towards the bottom of the table on all these indicators. Thames Valley University in particular might find itself struggling to justify a fee level comparable with that of Oxbridge.

Entry standards

University applicants see entry standards as key to the quality of education they will receive, according to Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. He said: "Students seem to respond very positively to market signals, and there is a tendency for students with the strongest grades to congregate in the same universities. In this, they are responding to signals from employers who, whatever they say, give the message that students from those universities are those they value most highly. So it is self-reinforcing."

Peter Andras and Bruce Charlton, lecturers at Newcastle University, have plotted the standing of each university as measured in The Times Good University Guide against its entry requirements, and found an almost linear relationship between the two.

Dr Andras said: "The entry levels define a real market. Students are trading their A-level grades for expected higher education services. Better A-level grades buy services from better universities.

"Universities may try to increase their ranking but, in practice, the data suggest that students know what they are expecting to get from a university based on A-level entry grades. This implies that universities can increase their ranking only if they are able to increase their entry-level requirements without experiencing a significant drop in their income related to student numbers."

The pair identified six different groups of universities. The highest ranked were the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (group A), followed by Imperial College London and the London School of Economics (group B). The third group included: the universities of Bath, Warwick, Bristol, York and Nottingham; University College London and Durham, and Sheffield universities (group C). St Andrews and Edinburgh universities were also members of this group but operated under a different funding regime.

Members of the fourth group were: the universities of Manchester, Loughborough, Newcastle and Birmingham; King's College London; Lancaster University; Royal Holloway, University of London; Queen's University, Belfast; Southampton and Leicester universities; the School of Oriental and African Studies; the University of Leeds; the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology; and Exeter, Aston and Sussex universities (group D). The universities of Glasgow and Cardiff were in the fourth group but had different funding regimes.

The fifth group included: Essex, Reading, Surrey and Liverpool universities; Queen Mary, University of London; East Anglia, Kent, Hull, Keele, City, Brunel and Ulster universities; and Goldsmith's College, University of London (group E). Other members of this group were the universities of Aberdeen, Stirling, Dundee, Strathclyde, Swansea, Heriot Watt and Aberystwyth.

All other universities were members of the sixth group (group F), with the exception of Thames Valley University, whose low entry standards and low ranking in The Times Good University Guide left it outside the groupings devised by Dr Andras and Dr Charlton.

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