I cringed when I saw that Durham University had preemptively advertised its undergraduate fees for 2016/17 at £9250 – currently 250 above the national maximum limit. I cringed for a number of reasons, not limited to, but including; I am an alumnus of Durham University, I have personal experience of teaching there, and since I started my undergraduate only 12 years ago, university fees have gone up 900%. Turns out you can put a price on the ‘Durham Difference’, which works out as about £250.
The proposed changes, to be activated if the Higher Education Bill passes, will mean that universities that are deemed to ‘meet expectations’ by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) can raise tuition prices in line with inflation. Roughly speaking, this means these universities can raise their fees from £9000 to £9250. However, the law (which probably will pass), has not been passed yet. The bill would put into law a body called the Office for Students, who according to the explanatory notes, can then implement the TEF. The Times Higher noted too that ‘The bill does not deal with the TEF, which does not require legislation to be implemented at institutional level, other than to give the OfS powers over the exercise’.
It therefore seems clear that Durham, Kent, and Royal Holloway Universities are making assumptions that the law will be passed. Durham have already sought advice from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills about whether they satisfy the requirements of the TEF. As Durham University say on their website ‘Durham University has received confirmation from the Department for Business Innovation & Skills that we meet the first year expectations of the TEF’. Personally though, I do not understand why, if the Bill creates the OfS, and the OfS are to implement the framework, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills are already pre-empting the work of a body who do not, as yet, exist by law. The fact that they provided Durham University with information that has not been formalised into law is perhaps a reflection of the motives of not just Durham, but the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, who clearly want to set the ball rolling on this project. Certainly, framing the increase as a ‘fait accompli’ would indicate that, although it also indicates a healthy disrespect for parliament and the law-making process.
Despite the seeming mess of all this, the TEF is no secret. The Times Higher Education magazine ran a piece in which they measured how universities would perform *if* the TEF were to be implemented. Ironically, of the three Universities (Durham, Holloway, and Kent), that rushed to advertise their tuition fee increases, only Kent would actually finish in the top ten of the benchmarked TEF rankings. Thus the most eager to increase their fees are certainly not the best in terms of teaching reputation. To be fair, I guess the TEF is only concerned with institutions that ‘meet expectations’. Hopefully, if they are suitably low, then everyone can raise tuition fees. Money all round (for the universities that is)!
I say that knowing full well I taught at Durham. I should also add that myself, and some other colleagues (I do not wish to universalise this), taught and received good feedback from students, but rarely received acknowledgement by the department or university. I personally had very poor experiences lobbying for reasonable changes in remuneration policy. Indeed, most who mark essays and give feedback recognize that if this is to be done to a good standard, then the time required would mean that most of us would be receiving less than the minimum wage. However, the TEF clearly does not consider the actually arbitrary nature of how teaching is conducted. Safe to say, a lot of it is done by overworked and underpaid PhD students who receive little acknowledgement. As one Durham student said when asked what she would say to prospective freshers, ‘ I will also mention first year is largely taught by PhD students on casualised teaching contracts, something the university neglects to mention’. Fortunately for students, myself and most PhD students I know, care deeply about their students, and will feel obligated to do the best for them. Clearly though, the Office for Students is certainly not for Research Students.
Durham University’s announcement was framed by them as an act of due diligence and benevolence; they were simply fulfilling their obligations under the Competition and Markets Authority legislation’, whereby they are ‘required to provide comprehensive and transparent information to applicants, including in relation to fees, on the University website and at pre-application Open Days (which in our case were held in June 2016)’. So really, Durham were just doing everyone a favour, by managing their expectations and making sure no one felt conned. Obviously it would be ludicrous to keep fees at £9000 for say, another year, while the law has time to actually be passed. Maybe Durham don’t realise that the increase is not compulsory?
Naturally Durham’s chomping at the bit to raise fees fits in with their reputation as a University with a poor reputation for attracting poorer students. However, it probably better reflects their desperation to make more money. Recently, I was involved, along with a number of student colleagues, in protesting at the increase of college accommodation fees (much of which goes on capital expenditure), and international student fees. As you can see, this debate is still ongoing. Although the university ‘listened’ to students, I do not think they listened. In fact, from my perspective, the outcome of the discussions actually caused an immediate increase in accommodation prices for students living at one particular college, because it was deemed unfair that they weren’t paying as much as other postgraduates in other colleges. Essentially, universally higher prices were better than universally reasonable ones. In other words, Durham needs the money.
The recent announcement just illustrates that universities, given the choice, and in some cases, no option, will keep raising their fees to the detriment of both poor and middle income students. From a personal and political perspective, I find this alarming. My own experience in student politics, and of the past ten years, illustrates that students, certainly at the institutional level, are consulted, but only in the sense that they are ‘conned’ and ‘insulted’ in one super-efficient go. I do not wish to be facetious, but it would certainly seem that consultation with students to many institutions is merely part of a checklist, and not a process designed to seriously consider the position of students on topics that will impact their life chances. Either way, in the immortal words of the Offspring, ‘the kids aren’t alright’.