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Student enrolment – a challenge to Will Straw

November 3rd, 2010 Posted in Labour, Liberal Democrats, UK Politics by

“Evidence-based” top Labour blog Left Foot Forward makes an extraordinary and alarming claim this morning that hikes in tuition fees will “deter four in five students” from enrolling at university. More specifically that hikes to £10k a year will deter 79%, £7k 70%, and £5k 53%.

This is based on one survey by the National Union of Students and HSBC, released in September that asked current students:

“If tuition fees were increased to XXXX, how likely would this be to have deterred you from going to university?”

Yielding the following results:

student-price-sensitivity1

The validity of such an approach to testing price sensitivity, and utility of the results are highly dubious for a number of reasons.

  • It’s the wrong audience. Fee increases will impact future not current students. The respondents will never have to make the choice.
  • The question does not make it clear fees are paid in arrears or the various caps and protections for low income earners. Paying £10k today is a very different prospect to paying it over 30 years, or not at all.
  • The word “Deter” is ambiguous, meaning anything from ‘I would not have gone to university’ to ‘I’d have thought harder before going*’.
  • Which degree has a £10k price tag matters, as does whether you’re going to choose that degree yourself. The price-sensitivity of a potential medic to medicine is clearly very different to the price sensitivity of a future historian to engineering. In this survey students who’d never consider a high fee degree are commenting on their tolerance for high fee degrees.
  • Since such political questions from a political lobby could influence whether or how high fees will rise, answers can be biased towards influencing the outcome. It’s rather like asking whether people would like to pay more for their current TV licence for no benefit.
  • Price testing by survey is best done by forcing simulated choices and seeing how people choose. In this case the real choice would be to ask the question of current sixth formers what degrees they are considering and where; then offering them the choice between doing that degree at that institution and accumulating the related debt, not going to university, or choosing a different cheaper degree elsewhere. This would be asked after educating the survey-taker about how fees are repaid. That might give a more realistic assessment of potential student price tolerance.

Personally I would have put the NUS’s claim in quotes.**

But, if Will Straw believes it is at all probable that student enrolment will fall by over half with any fees above £5,000 or the even more extreme drops on higher fees then Liberal Vision is prepared to stake that claim.

If the changes go through we will see a number of courses raise fees. It should then be possible in most cases to measure enrolment before and after for all courses at £5k+, £7k+, and £10k+.

We are fully confident the average enrolments across those courses will not drop by half (the lowest estimate). We’re putting up £100 at evens on each of those levels.

Will you take that bet Mr. Straw?

*One interesting factoid in the NUS survey is that only 30% of current students support their education by working.  There’s quite a lot of room then for many to improve their finances, employability, and ability to pay back fees later, regardless of fee levels.

**LFF have now updated their headline to reflect this, as Will notes in his response.

3 Responses to “Student enrolment – a challenge to Will Straw”

  1. Jack Hughes Says:

    Why do politicians of al stripes see university mainly as a testbed for social engineering?


  2. Tommy Judd Says:

    Your last asterisked point on working is important; perhaps demand for cocaine and ketamine will also ease off on campuses too as fees rise.

    Better questions for the survey would have been:
    - would a higher deferred fee make you think more carefully about where and what you will study and whether it’s worth studying at all?
    - would an even higher deferred fee deter you from following Will Straw’s footsteps to Oxford when a cheaper and perhaps more appropriate course was on offer elsewhere? Or is the additional cost worth it for the historical resonance, lifestyle and networking Oxbridge can bring (read ‘The Fry Chronicles’ and attempt to monetise those extraordinary benefits in kind)?
    - if you saw conclusive evidence that the existing and previous student-finance schemes effectively transfered wealth from the poor to the already privileged, would you open your mind to the new proposals?
    - would you support in principle a mechanism whereby richer, privileged universities with strong international reputations had the means and incentives to provide substantial bursaries to the clever poor?


  3. Will Straw Says:

    Thanks for this. I’ve replied on Left Foot Forward and amended the headline as you suggest since we were reporting the findings of the research rather than endorsing them.

    All the best,

    Will


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