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Higher Education Needs to Meet Higher Expectations

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It has been two years since students protested against the rise in tuition fees. As the cost of a degree has risen, attitudes to higher education have changed, and students now have higher expectations, says Martin Halsall, Principal of Greenwich School of Management.

Last week marked the two-year anniversary of the British student protests held in opposition to planned spending cuts to higher education and an increase in the cap on tuition fees from £3,290 to £9,000. The rise in the maximum fees universities are allowed to charge students took effect at the start of this term.

Twenty-seven thousand pounds in tuition fees for an undergraduate degree is now a reality for many students. While not every institution has increased its fees to this level, costs have risen across the board. When you consider the expenses associated with living away from home (which the government has estimated to cost £290 a week in London) and the earnings foregone from the decision to pursue a degree rather than go straight into work, the financial commitment is significant. The result is that students in 2012 are more concerned than any previous cohort about justifying their investment in higher education.

The burden has now shifted to the HE sector to make students aware that the overall cost of studying can be reduced without compromising on quality, and to demonstrate the lifetime value of earning a degree.

To start with, not every university has increased its fees to the full £9,000, so there are less expensive options available. That said, a degree still represents a significant investment, and more students are looking to reduce their overall expenditure while demanding more from their providers.

One way to keep costs down is through accelerated degree programmes. Traditional three-year degrees require study for a maximum of 30 weeks a year, with some demanding only 22 weeks. In contrast, a two-year fast-track degree incorporates the same content, but over the course of three terms a year, allowing for short breaks rather than long summer holidays. Fees for two year degrees can total less than £15,000 and enable students to start earning their full salary a year earlier.

Furthermore, while many students may find the prospect of moving away from home to attend university exciting, using local providers that enable them to live with their parents helps to significantly reduce their living expenses and there is an increasing trend in this direction.

While the costs can be reduced, higher education always requires some form of financial commitment. As a result, students are now more conscious of value for money and are looking to invest in degrees that will yield tangible results in their career immediately after graduation. This is more likely to be achieved by choosing an institution that places great importance on the employability of its students. This should include extensive and personalised career services and courses taught by lecturers with industry experience who know what employers are looking for in graduates. At Greenwich School of Management, we are finding students placing an increasing emphasis on value, with many choosing degrees based largely on their relevance to future careers.

Higher education costs more in the UK than it ever has before. However, it is essential that this should not mean access is denied to huge sections of the population. Providers need to focus on adding value and on helping students to find ways to fund their studies and reduce the burden of debt that now seems inevitable.