The government wants the public sector to operate on the basis of private incentives. The proffered aspiration is that private (profit making) incentives will help rationalise public provision and make public service providers more efficient.
I have been arguing for years that this is not what is in fact happening. What is happening instead is that the imposition of private sector incentives in a non-profit context (in an environment of budgetary constraints) ensures that public services under-perform. As the public gets used to the idea of paying for things, and the boundaries between public and private fade, the argument for the maintenance of public services becomes increasingly weaker.
In the field of Higher Education, the aim of introducing market incentives in the supply of the public good of education is not the improvement of the university experience. It is the privatisation of education.
We have almost arrived at the ‘modernising’ destination of truly private universities in England. The nominal fee of £1000 per year introduced in 1998 became £3000 and now £9000 and it is due to rise even further. Annual fees however are not the only thing that students are asked to pay.
In our struggle to emulate the private sector, some institutions are even charging prospective students who want to peek in, before they actually set foot in a university! Behold, the University becomes like the Estate Agents where a good deal of our graduates will seek employment in. How is that for teaching employability skills?
I only realised recently that some institutions are asking prospective students to pay an application fee. Perhaps this has been common practice and it escaped me? I am completely blown away by this as it seems to be the ultimate expression of the marketisation of higher education.
On a quick survey of application fees for LLMs (Masters in Law), here is what I found:
UCL states that a processing fee is applicable for LLM programme applications. For the 2016-17 programme, the fee is £75 for online applications and £100 for paper applications.
The LSE says that an application fee will apply to each application submitted to Graduate Admissions. As a guide, the fees for 2014-15 admissions are currently set at: £50 for applications submitted online, £75 for paper based application submitted by post.
Warwick charges a fee, but is not upfront about how much it is. King’s charges £40.
What is the meaning of all this? This practice says very clearly that after years of strolling the world recruiting international students, our highest ranking institutions have reached the point of saturation that necessitates some gateway control of applications. An application fee acts as a disincentive, it tells prospective students, do not bother applying if you think you may not meet the entrance criteria. It says, if you are not a top student, do not bother us with your documentation.
It also says something else. It says we do not care for you if you cannot cough up, even before turning up. International students have to pay significant amounts for a student visa, down-payments for their degree fees once accepted, deposits for accommodation. Now they also need to pay a fee for ringing the bell.
This is all great for the money making machine that HE has become, but lets not pretend anymore about inclusiveness and equal opportunities. Our leading institutions want the richest, period.
Of course, admissions teams will respond to this post arguing that they are just trying to recoup costs in a difficult funding environment. Really? Are they? The cost of considering an application is £75? How did they arrive at this amount I wonder? And, even if this were true, isn’t considering applications part of our job? If we can afford reclining seats and flat screens in every classroom, maybe we can splash out on the software that deals with applications.
What have we become?
What will we become?
PS. The University of Westminster where I work does not charge an application processing fee for its programmes. Applications are made via the UCAS Postgraduate (UKPASS) website and are free of charge.