2012 Are We Ready?

Posted on February 22, 2011

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by Chris Dingle – Vice President – Kingston University Students’ Union

2012. In less than a year we will move into a time held to be significant by many different people for many different reasons. For the people of London, it marks the year of the first Olympics to be held in Britain for over 60 years. The last time the Olympics were held in London it was 1948, and the effects of the Second World War were still being felt throughout Europe and the wider world. It was a chance to celebrate the ending of hostilities and a time to celebrate hopes for a new era of prosperity, peace and security. The people of London will hope that these games are also a chance to look forward to a better post recession future. As the events start with a volunteer army composed of the greatest number of volunteers in the UK since the Second World War, I will share in that hope.

For some the year 2012 is significant for other reasons. Many new age beliefs credit 2012 as being the dawning of a new age for astronomical reasons; the dawning of the Age of Aquarius to be precise. They believe that this new age will see a profound positive spiritual change for the human race. The popular film 2012 spoke of an apocalyptic event and some theorists claim that evidence for such an event is supported by the fact that 2012 is the end of the Mayan Long Count Calendar. Whilst these conflicting views say much of what is expected of 2012 the only thing they guarantee is a great change. Well they are off course to an extent correct. 2012 will see a massive change in one sector at least. Higher Education.

But what will the fee change mean for us? Are we ready for it? How will institutions look in 5 years time? These are the questions the sector is trying to answer at the moment.

Some say the fee increase will see a dramatic decrease the number of applicants, particularly those from low income backgrounds. They will almost certainly be right to an extent but not necessarily for the reasons they give. The number of young people in the UK has peaked at its highest level since the 1980s due to a baby boom in the early 1990s. However the birth rate since the 1990s steadily decreased until after the turn of the new millenium. Aside from the interesting correlation between high birth rates and economic recession and one could argue conservative governments, this trend will undoubtedely have an impact on HE participation over the coming years.

But when one adds in the influence of increased fees on underprivellged students and market economics into the situation what is the likely effect? One has to be honest about the system that we will have in 2012. It is not a traditional tuition fee as students in the United States would know it but it is a hybrid system between fees and a graduate tax. My belief is that there will be very few students who could not go to university under the new system that went under the current system. But whilst that may be the reality, the perception of the system will be somewhat different and will impact student choice in a very different way. The perception of not being able to afford to go will have a two fold effect: Firstly, some students will simply see £8000 or £9000 per annum and think that they couldn’t afford a university education with no further examination of the funding available. Alternatively the students that don’t rule university out will choose different modes of study and will make different choices in how they study. For example, part time study and distance learning will increase in popularity to avoid the costs associated with full time study and students will stop moving away to university as much and go to the local university and stay living with parents. The new system even gives makes greater funding available for part time students. The signs are all there, but many insitutions will be unprepared for offering courses in this manner and such a step change takes time.

Insitutions will have a difficult environment to operate in, both in setting fees and managing student expectations. Those students studying in the traditional full time manner will expect an enhanced and comprehensive student experience. But most academics and HE managers struggle to define student experience. Even students struggle to define it. It will be difficult to enhance such an elusive concept. The abolition of Aim Higher will make managing student expectation and widening participation even harder, at a time when the government expects excellence in both. The picture becomes one of universities treading a tight rope between ideology of education as a democratic right and the market, all of which must be done whilst wearing a blinfold with the government shouting encouragement in different directions. Will we fall or will be find our way through?

So what needs to change? Clairty in what is provided in the fee will be paramount. Students will need to have clear expectations managed by the insitution and they will have to be met. Whilst this is not necessarily a regressive step it is certainly going to be diffcult to achieve, although student charters will go some way towards helping. But they key to this new system working will be both access to information and access to the expertise need to analyse that education. The abolition of Aim Higher will mean students from poor backgrounds may have the information, but unless they are lucky enough to have someone they can ask, they won’t be able to interpret it and make a sound choice. Investment in school careers advisors and further education advice will be key if the government wants a market driven by student choice.

Are we ready for the change? No. But from now until 2012 will certainly be an interesting time as we try to be. The question that remains, is will 2012 be a positive spiritual experience for HE or an apocalyptic movie with Vince Cable and David Willets directing…?

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