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The Browne Review: a future unknown

Students are standing on the threshold of a new era of learning. The publication of the Browne Review has invited mass speculation over the future of higher education and has inflicted fear sparked by the prospect of increased tuition fees. The influence of this report on government policy will undoubtedly have serious consequences for staff and students alike, and as students fervently await a government response, one result is certain: the landscape of higher education is set to be altered dramatically.
Suggested plans to increase financial assistance are comparatively minuscule when considering the suggested rise in tuition fees (currently standing at a maximum of £9,000 a year), spelling concerns for those from lower to middle income families. This will affect, in particular, those who are just above the sill of government financial aid.
With parents’ aspirations for their children’s entry into higher education (and growing awareness of its importance, seen by the rise in students studying at degree level), it needs to be asked: is it reasonable to expect a family with a combined income of £60,000 to contribute to their child’s university education?
Browne – student enemy number one?  Photo: www.bp.com

Evidence would suggest that yes, it is. Following last month’s publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review, it is clear that the combined effect of evaporating pensions and decreasing of child benefits (which will see most families losing out on £35,000 per child over eighteen years) will put significant financial strain on the lower-middle classes already struggling to support their children at university. Needless to say, families with two or more children will find further hardship in providing funds and the inevitable consequence is crippling graduate debt.

However, the University of Sussex claims that they are “committed to operating a ‘needs-blind’ admission system for our undergraduate degrees – so that students are offered places according to their ability to benefit, not according to their ability to pay. Our fee levels and our bursary and scholarship systems will be set in a way that meets this pledge.”

This seems all well and good, but has the university considered the fact that their scholarships rely heavily on academic excellence, neglecting those who have chosen less traditional educational routes? They seem to have completely forgotten that students, who might not necessarily be able to afford the maximum £9000 a year and who also lack outstanding grades, may still excel in a university environment. But many such students could be excluded as a result of increasing fees.

The Badger spoke to several students regarding this; none, however, articulated matters as eloquently as a third year Media Studies student, who wishes to be identified as Helen: “As my family earns just over the threshold for maximum financial support, I had to fight incredibly hard to get the government to recognise me as an independent and award me the full grant and loan. Under the current system, I truly believe that as the caps are set without regard for those in the middle, financially speaking, it becomes extremely difficult for them to attend university without surpassing the unfairly high grade boundaries required to obtain a scholarship. My family are able to provide me with precisely zero financial support, so without government help, I struggle to imagine how students like myself would ever have access to higher education. The new policies are flimsy at best and I haven’t a clue what the future of our infamously diverse university would be were fees of £9,000 adopted.”

Has the time come for UK families to start saving money in university trust funds as families in the United States must?  The adoption of an American-style higher education system may presently seem unlikely, but is nonetheless worth considering. The American lack of restraint on tuition fees has resulted in the leading institutions charging over $50,000 per year, creating a two tier system. It is no secret that the top, privatised institutions cater predominantly to a more privileged sector of society, while the more inexpensive colleges appear to accommodate students from lower income backgrounds. If Browne’s proposals are implemented and institutions are free to charge up to £12,000 in fees, there is a danger of a similarly exclusive, elitist student nucleus developing in the UK.

Currently, it appears impossible to escape the celebration of Sussex’s ever developing reputation; dominating web searches, reading the university’s ‘bulletin’, logging on to check e-mails, even driving into the campus, students (studying and prospective) and staff alike are bombarded with quotes, statistics and league table figures celebrating its recent successes. One of the university’s most impressive rankings was in the Times Higher Education’s (THE) research league tables “ranking Sussex 4th in the UK for the impact of its research.”

To add to this, the UK Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 announced that “100% of departments at Sussex have world leading research” and that “90% of the total research activity at Sussex is world leading”.

The university’s official website invites students to “study at a research led university of national and international excellence with award-winning teachers at the forefront of their fields”. Sussex is at the forefront in all fields of research, reclaiming its position as a well reputed institution, surpassing the vast majority of prestigious Russell Group members to the top of the league tables. Unsurprisingly, this reputation is hanging in the balance; brutal cuts to higher education seem inevitable, and the looming decrease in research funding could prove detrimental to Sussex’s potentially prosperous future. The combination of a research funding ‘freeze’ and university teaching grants, from funding council HEFCE, being reduced will mean significantly less money is available to sustain high levels of research output by research staff. When you consider this in addition to the fact that slashed teaching budgets will result in increased teaching hours for all staff, provisions for research, both in terms of cash funding and time available to carry it out, may reduce dramatically.

As such, one of the most dangerous implications of a fall in research quality is of course its impact on Sussex’s league table standing. The university’s official statement regarding this issue reiterates the fact that “The league tables place us firmly in the top 20.” The question is, for how long will it remain there in the increasingly competitive, financially driven climate?The top performing universities have always enjoyed funding bonuses for both research and teaching; once a university falls below this upper bracket it is notoriously difficult for them to recover, especially within the tight constraints of the new funding proposals.

There has been growing concern over the Government’s supposed plans to fully withdraw public funding from arts and humanities subjects, favouring the protection of funding for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM subjects). With 59.7% of Sussex’s intake this academic year studying humanities, the Government’s perceived belief that students’ £3,290 per annum contribution is a futile spend on subjects that offers no significant social return will certainly not be well received. What effect will the repercussions of these actions have on the humanities departments of the future? Internal destabilisation perhaps? Quite possibly, as prospective students with less financial mobility herd towards subjects that they won’t have to pay for themselves: STEM subjects.

The consequence of a rise in fees introduces an extraordinarily un-level arena for competition amongst universities. Institutions will become the product of their consumers – the students. Of course, as consumers, students will have consumer rights. It is due to this in part that satisfying the students (read as customers) becomes the best means of both recruitment and retention. Browne proposes that these changes in higher education will be student centred and student led, stating that: “We want to put students at the heart of the system. Students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want to get from participating in higher education.” All universities, Sussex included, appear to be taking these recommendations incredibly seriously; with such an unprecedented hike in fees, institutions will have no choice but to fight competitively for applicants within this explicitly capitalist model. After all, no student will choose to attend universities with sky-high fees and poor reputations. Statistics such as those produced by the National Student Survey (NSS) will be increasingly important in moulding an institution’s ranking in both the league tables and student (consumer) opinion.

Students are largely united by their desire to learn, better their prospects as individuals and ultimately they appear to be the key to the success of their institution: an institution that is internationally recognised and is said to be a privilege to attend. It is clear that Sussex students do not advocate the proposal of increased fees and funding cuts.

Moreover, it seems that with the fee increase, students have a renewed opportunity to be heard and as the university’s history has shown, it is through communication and cooperation between faculty, staff and students that will enable them to have a positive impact on the development of the university, their own education and the resulting prosperity in these uncertain times.

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