The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

NCH – why the shock horror?

The last few days have seen the stories and commentary about New College of Humanities range from disbelief to outright farce, with a running theme of resentment and anger permeating most of them. However, the only thing that surprises me is that anyone is surprised. That isn’t to say that I agree with it, but it appears to be an almost logical conclusion to all of the decisions that have been made by Government over the last year.

Running any university course costs money. Whilst students tend to only see the pointy end with regard to receiving lectures from the academics and the occasional meeting with admin staff at the beginning of the year or when something goes wrong, the underbelly of university life doesn’t come cheap – admin dealing with student issues behind the scenes, marketing, site staff, IT staff, capital expenditure, specialist equipment for courses – the costs soon ramp up.

In the past students paid a certain amount (£1050, £3290 or whatever it is now) and the state funded the rest. Now, with fees heading to 9k for students and no funding coming from the state (certainly for Humanities etc.), the money still has to be found for the university and extra has to be found for additional bursaries. So that is basically the 9k gone to pay for everything. That’s just a rough guide, but one we can all broadly agree on.

The issue is that private establishments could never really compete in the past – they would have had to find the same 7 – 9k per person to run the university, but weren’t entitled to get any money from the state. So, whilst they could have set themselves up, all of the money to fund the university would have had to come from students. And most students would probably look at that and think ‘why pay 9k when I can pay my 3.3k? Thanks but no thanks’.

Now that students are paying all of the costs, that no longer applies. With the majority of universities about to charge 9k, a private provider can now slot themselves into the market and charge the same price, but also cover their costs. Or they can add a bit of glamour (get in a couple of big names, throw in some other form of incentive) and charge, say, 11k. Admittedly, NCH appears to have gone the whole hog straight away and gone for the really big names and really big money from the outset, but it was going to happen eventually – we all probably just thought it would be more incremental than this. And so we start to head towards the American model (which is certainly having no picnic over there at the moment).

What worries me is this: I’m a psychologist, I’ve got no specialist knowledge in economics, business, or even particularly in models of education. But if I can see this (and have seen it coming since the announcements on fees were made) then I’m not foolish enough to believe that no-one in Government saw it coming. So I have to question whether this is part of an ideology to drive higher education towards private providers.

If I’m wrong then I’m perfectly happy for someone to point out out where and why!

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