There's been a lot of comment recently on Labour's proposals to decrease tuition fees to £6,000. Everyone seems to have waded in on the debate, but I wanted to know what students actually think, and discover the real issues affecting them today.
The psychological effect of £9,000 fees, in one sense, may be doing exactly what it was intended to. Beforehand, a lot of students went to university simply because they weren't sure what 'real job' they wanted to get, or because it was just the 'done thing' that everybody else at school was doing - now it feels like students are really attending university for a reason. There is a general feeling that they are working a lot harder in order to 'get what they pay for' and most of them already have 'real jobs' - they're using them to finance their education. In my experience, students now are much more focused and well-informed, thanks largely to the drive towards better information and more transparency which accompanied the tuition fee changes. Most importantly, they are more involved than ever in shaping their educational experience - there's been a rise in engagement in academic representation and democracy, and when I asked them, they seemed more than happy to add their voice to the debate on the future of higher education funding.
All of this can present a bit of a challenge for universities. They are expected to provide exceptional value for money in all aspects. The number of contact hours students receive has become a bigger and bigger issue. Universities have to find the balance between an academically challenging experience that will properly prepare students for the world, whilst also recognising that how positively (or not) those students score their 'satisfaction' during the National Student Survey (NSS) will affect how many students want to come there in the future.
But it also presents huge opportunities. There's been a slow but steady increase in the number of people from low socio-economic backgrounds choosing to study at university, thanks to the compulsory contribution to widening participation that came as a condition of the fees increase. But more money is now required to invest in further outreach projects to catch people at a younger age and ensure that they are not deterred from higher education due to the cost. But would reducing fees to £6,000 help? I asked some current students at Bournemouth University for their thoughts during a recent debate, and the results were a bit surprising.
Many current students at Bournemouth University appear that to have now accepted £9,000 tuition fees as the norm and are even prepared for the possibility that the next Government could increase them further. They described fees to me as "money that you don't see", and were instead far more concerned with day-to-day survival - the level of maintenance loans available and the increased cost of student living. In fact several students commented that their basic loan did not even cover their rent, and even those who get support from their families are relying more and more on bursaries, scholarships and part-time work in order to get by.
But why is this such an issue? We know that financial difficulties are a key factor for students who eventually decide that they cannot complete their studies, and no one should ever be excluded from higher education because they can't afford to pay. It isn't tuition fees that are the real issue here - it's paying the rent.
Labour should be applauded for tackling the issue of tuition fees head on, but if Ed Miliband really wants to win the student vote he should focus on the real issues affecting them today.