Will universities in the ‘squeezed middle’ be forced to lower prices? (UK)

Mid-ranking universities are getting passed over because they’re not considered prestigious. Kim Catcheside has a solution.

The publication of the Hefce figures on the allocation of grants and places for 2012 brought protests from the “squeezed middle” of universities, ineligible for core and margin places because they’ve set fees at or near £9,000, but are too far down the league tables to compete for AAB students.

In Times Higher Education, the director of the University Alliance, Libby Hackett, complained that it was very frustrating for her members to have their places cut given that they were doing all the things the government asked of them in terms of high graduate employment rates and links with industry.

Doing all the things government asked of them, that is, except charging fees at or below £7,500 a year.

The problem is not that this is a squeezed middle, but that it is overcrowded and isn’t really a middle at all – as it comprises around two thirds of the sector who are neither elite nor among the 25 or so eligible for core and margin places. We have yet to discover how these institutions have done when it comes to competing for AAB students, but it is seems likely that they will overwhelmingly have chosen to go for prestige despite evidence that they are likely to get smaller classes and better teaching outside the magic circle.

As professor Sir David Watson points out in his recent paper for the Higher Education Policy Institute: “In the United States, Andrew Delbanco concludes that the quality gap between private and public universities is much smaller than the gap in reputation. (Delbanco 2007). Evidence is growing in developed systems that students are choosing reputation over quality in selecting universities, and that as long as employers screen for the same thing they are acting rationally in doing so.”

There is a school of thought in the UK that sees this as the start of an inevitable shakedown of the market. They argue that only 20 or so universities in the UK are valued by global employers and so able to charge high fees on the back of their reputations. In other universities students are merely buying a qualification in English or maths or science.

Since this is a bigger and more competitive market, the argument goes, and students are intelligent buyers armed with good information, the price will go down. But so far, as I pointed out in a post here on the network a couple of weeks ago, the race among mid ranking providers has been to develop reputation with higher fees as an essential marker of being “reassuringly expensive”.

The vice chancellor of London Metropolitan University, Malcolm Gillies, is almost alone in plumping for the cheap seats. London Met’s heroic adverts championing “affordable quality education” are arresting in their audacity.

“Affordable quality education is a dominating concept at London Met,” he told me, “and has been since we were founded in 1848. It is really important that there is genuine choice for students who want the education to enable them to meet their aspirations and to have control over their level of debt.”

Vice chancellors in universities that are, or aspire to be, research intensive, often argue that greater investment is needed because they are playing a global game. But Gillies believes that London Met is in the global game too: “Of around 150 million students in tertiary education in the world, only between 3-5% are in elite institutions. We can’t all be in that band and nor can we all be average. Most students are looking for a good education at a good price.”

Undergraduate courses at London Met start at £4,500 and flat fee postgraduate masters are set at £8,000 per year. London Met has achieved this by cutting out all but the most popular and cost effective courses. The number of courses has been reduced from 577 to 160.

The university is also engaged in what Gillies calls a “process of re-engineering” all its back office services, introducing new technology and eradicating duplication. This year saw 229 redundancies, mostly academics, on top of an estimated 250 staff who have left or taken voluntary severance in the past 18 months.

Most other universities in the bottom half of the league tables have balked at such drastic measures. There has been course cutting but not on such a drastic scale which many would see as inconsistent with the idea of a university. But Gillies is confident: “We could see that we could run good courses for £4,500 with as many pence in the pound as possible going to the product you can see … We are moving to teach our first year students for 30 weeks of the year and investing in swifter more responsive methods of assessment.”

He has a message for universities that are research intensive, and especially those that aspire to be – students will demand more transparent costing. They will work out quickly enough that their high fees are cross subsidising research in other areas and he has a warning. “If students see money spent on research while their teaching and campus facilities are left wanting, there will be a price to pay in student satisfaction scores.”

All of which begs the inevitable question: if affordable education is such a good idea, how come almost nobody else in the university sector is doing it? The reason, according to Gillies, is that the current system is not sufficiently a market. Things will get a lot more interesting when (and if) private providers are allowed to award degrees in any serious numbers.

Source: Guardian Education  http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/apr/05/universities-middle-forced-lower-prices