Universities consider lowering fees as applications drop

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28 universities and colleges in England are considering reducing their tuition fees, after the government announced incentives for charging below £7,500 a year.

Despite forty-seven universities initially setting fees for 2012 at £9,000 a year, a report from The Office for Fair Access (Offa) has revealed that one fifth of English institutions are reconsidering their plans.

The turnaround may be a relief to some cash-strapped applicants, although the last-minute change comes after the 2012 application process has already begun.

The fee changes will affect those students who are applying now for entry in September 2012, meaning some will be applying without knowing the specific fees they will be paying. Offa has made it clear that universities will have to contact those students affected, which could be thousands of people.

The incentives offered by a government White Paper are an extra 20,000 full-time university places, which will be held back otherwise; only those institutions with lower fees will be allowed to compete for these places. The paper on higher education came out in July, and by September Offa had already announced that twelve universities were reconsidering fee plans.

Eight universities have now already submitted a proposal for lower fees, with more expected to follow before the deadline for resubmitting plans on November 4th.

It is thought lower average fees will be achieved through a mixture of bursaries and fee waivers. Universities planning to charge over £6,000 a year already have to prove to Offa that they are recruiting and making adequate provision for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The comes at the same time as the announcement that university applications are undergoing a record fall; entries for education courses are down by 30.4%, and arts and humanities courses especially are forecast to see a large drop in application rates.

UCAS (Universitiesand Colleges Admissions Service) has reported that overall applications have fallen by 9% so far. There is speculation as to whether “market forces” are driving down fees; it is possible some institutions are lowering fees as demand for places drops, and union leaders are citing the fall as proof that the decision to triple fees was an unwise one.

However, the deadline for UCAS applications is not until January, and Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK has said it is “too early” to read much into these figures at this stage of the application process:

“It may also be that students are taking longer this year to consider their options.”

It seems that numbers of mature students have also been affected, with applications from people aged 40 and over down by 27.8%.

One third-year Durham Engineering student said the that students were reconsidering university was “unsurprising,” as young people look for alternative ways into careers which cost less than a traditional degree.

A Natural Sciences student said: “It will not be worth doing a degree unless you are at a top university. If you are paying £9,000 then graduate career prospects have to be good.”

Many have expressed the opinion that attending only the best universities will make paying high fees worthwhile in the long run, and courses without a vocational element will become significantly less popular.

These views appear to be reflected in applications around the country. So-called “soft” subjects, such as media-related courses, have seen dramatic falls in figures of around 40%, whereas courses such as Engineering and Mathematics have seen less of a sharp change, and Oxbridge applications closed only 0.8% down.

Interest in vocational routes into work, such as apprenticeships, is expected to rise, and these figures suggest that value for money is at the forefront of new students’ minds when applying. The uncertainty caused by the recent speculation surrounding fees will provide hope to some; however for others it will prompt further questions about the value of a degree in beginning a successful career.

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