In 2012, the UK government allowed tuition in English universities to rise from a little over £3,300 to ($5,500) to about £9,000 ($15,300) in a single year. Well, technically, they de-regulated tuition up to a maximum of £9,000, but since charging less than the maximum would obviously imply that programs weren’t top-quality, pretty much everyone went to the maximum immediately. Actual average tuition jumped to about £8,600 ($14,620).
So, of course, we’ve all been wondering what the effects of this would be. I’ve looked at the evidence a few times in the past (see here, here, and here), but now the UK University and College Application Service (UCAS) has issued a summary of the effects of fee increases on student demand. Why UCAS – the body that processes university applications, but by dint of which is also the body that monitors changes in applications and enrolments by things like age, race, income, etc. – chose to answer these questions on a very short Q+A webpage rather than with a report with corroborating evidence is a bit puzzling; nevertheless, the corroborating evidence can be found in the organization’s own annual analyses of demand, available here.
UCAS’ conclusions were as follows: that the fee increase did cause a small one-time reduction of demand. But the long-term trend of increasing demand continued, and application rates are now at their highest level ever. Most importantly, and I quote, “In terms of demand, entry, and type of institution, differences by background have reduced over this period”.
Got that? Not only did a $9,000 increase in tuition, with only loans and no grants to offset the higher fees, not increase educational disparities by race, income, etc., they actually coincided with a narrowing of educational gaps.
(For clarity here, neither I nor UCAS is implying that the narrowing of the gap is caused by the tuition increase; merely that the trend was unaffected by the increase.)
The English fee policy is still ludicrous, of course. Charging a huge fee when you know that students can’t pay it back is just idiotic (current estimates suggest that 50% of all fee loans will go unpaid, and that 80% of students will receive some loan forgiveness). But nevertheless, it is very striking evidence about how resilient demand is in the face of tuition increases. You’d think that governments around the world would take a look at this and say, “hey, most everything people claim about the negative effects of tuition fees on access didn’t happen here. Why is that, and should our government re-consider our policies in light of it?” You might also think that governments that don’t do this might be guilty of deliberately ignoring evidence in order to preserve policies which harm the long-term health of universities, in service of crass short-term political objectives.
You might think that – of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.