Leeds Met – £8.5 fees and the future

Yesterday Leeds Met announced that from 2012 it intends to charge £8,500 per year in tuition fees for new undergraduate full time students. http://bit.ly/frCjcm

Leeds Met has gone from the lowest charging university in England to potentially one of the most expensive in less than 3 years. It is certainly the first post ’92 university to announce fees of this level.

As a bit of background Leeds Met reacted to top up fees in ’05 by advocating a lower fee level and relying on economies of scale to make up the costs. To put this into context it is one of the UK’s largest universities and relies on courses, for example business studies, that can take on vast numbers of students and cost very little to teach, as steady income streams. Big courses costing little to teach and charging less make as much as small courses charging more.

The type of students coming to Leeds Met are also relevant, mature and part time students outnumber ‘traditional 18-21 undergraduates’ by about three to one. It’s a question of the chicken and the egg, did these students come to Leeds Met because of the lower fees or did the university cater to them?

Theoretically this could have panned out and Leeds Met could have had an enviable market position as a widening access university. Applications boomed (and continue to) and the university was for some courses turning away tens of students to every one acceptance. What was not factored in was the successive government cuts to higher education without funding reform over the past two governments.

In some sense it’s unfair to say to the university “you should have known better” – no one could realistically have predicted the UK’s roller coaster ride of a higher education funding environment from 2005 onwards so in 2008 with a multimillion pound deficit Leeds Met announced its intention to charge the full fee (£3k+) from 2011 onwards.

The argument at the time was that it had been a poor decision to voluntarily forgo income in the first place and that the university had in fact been neglecting students by doing so. In some ways this is a sound argument, if you accept the premise that students should pay, up front (with loans, etc) or at all.

However regardless of the fairground attraction that was Leeds Met circa ’09 to students, past present and future, this flip flop on fee policy represented somewhat of an admission by the university that it acknowledged its inability manage its own finances in the long term and more importantly its failure to plan for the future needs of students. It was also a dangerous step away from the ideas of widening participation and inclusivity which shaped the the university so much from its brand to its curriculum.

This was not all, the model the university relied on: big courses, high student to staff ratios comes with inherent problems. Low student satisfaction, high attrition and students having a strong sense of isolation and detachment from their student experience.

The university from ’09 onwards made a valiant attempt to redress the issues and as a result the university made exceptional moves up league tables, going up 11 places in the National Student Survey for example.

So this sets the scene for yesterday’s announcement. A history of low fees and widening access, big courses and students from non traditional backgrounds, low satisfaction and a sense of students not being in control of the education service that was being delivered to them.

Leeds Met announced that as a result of the governments plans for higher education funding it will charge £8,500 a year tuition fees for full time undergraduates from 2012.  To place this in context Oxford and Cambridge, two of the best universities in the world will be charging only £500 more at £9k.

This shift from economies of scale, widening access and inclusivity to the upper echelons of the planned HE market is startling and frankly mystifying. The university is undoubtedly shifting away from our typical student – 40 years old plus, two kids at home an hour commute away, part time and studying a subject allied to medicine.

This begs a number of questions…

Who is it looking to attract? What will this mean for the provision – an end to sports science and speech and language therapy?

For a university that has been unable to predict its market, anticipate or react to student demand or the pressures of the changing higher education environment the words of the Quality Assurance Agency’s disappointing ’09 report are left ringing in our ears, I certainly have limited confidence in Leeds Met’s “future management of academic standards”.

Although of course the response will be “that with greater resources a higher quality service can be offered” which we know to be untrue, quality did not improve anywhere in the sector as a result of the introduction of top up fees which were a key test for this proposition.

I have the luxury of hindsight in some respects. I pay the lower £2k fees and although at the time of writing I am a full time undergraduate student at Leeds Met I will be graduating this summer. I was also Leeds Met Students’ Union’s Associate President Education from ’08 to ’10 and a member of Leeds Met’s Board of Governors so I’m partial to a perspective that others might not be. I believe that the university is making some moves in the right direction but this placement of itself in the top tier of the new market is a mistake. It will not be able to compete with Oxford. Full stop. The response will be “we make no attempt to compete with Oxford” but my reply to that is, the only thing that prospective students will look for when they google ‘Leeds Met’ is the fee level and that is what they will see, the university may not intend it but that’s what they’ve got, perception is everything.

This announcement has made national news so it’s probably too late to control the story or reverse the decision, prospective students from non traditional families have seen the new fees and it’s put them off. They’ve probably put their Leeds Met prospectuses in the bin already.

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