Universities across England are set to charge £9,000 a year for their courses, raising concerns throughout the industry over the future stability of civils education.
Public spending cuts force rise
The maximum annual charge for an undergraduate degree rose to £9,000 from £3,920 last October. The increase was to help replace government funding to universities lost as a result of public spending cuts.
Plans to transfer education costs from state to students led to widespread protests amid fears that lower-income students would be discouraged from pursuing a university education.
At the time, higher education minister David Willets said universities would be able to charge the highest fees only in “exceptional” circumstances.
Guidance published last month by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) set out what the new body expects of universities charging the top fees. From 2012, all universities wanting to charge more than £6,000 must have an access agreement detailing the financial support they will provide to lower-income students.
Maximum becomes the norm
But recent reports suggest nearly all universities are likely to consider charging the maximum and the universities of Exeter, Bath, Warwick, Cambridge and Loughborough are among those offering civil engineering degrees that have said they plan to charge the highest rates. A four-year MEng degree in civil engineering at these universities will now cost around £50,000 after living costs are factored in.
A University of Warwick spokesman defended its decision to charge the maximum fee. “Engineering students will continue to seek to come to Warwick as our students are taught by world-leading academics with a global reputation,” he said.
“Warwick is also consistently ranked as one of the UK’s top 10 universities. We need to not just preserve that level of excellence, but to build on it and enhance it despite the reduction in funding that English universities are facing.”
“[Civil engineering departments] are not suddenly going to be awash with additional income”
Pete Walker, University of Bath
University of Bath head of civil engineering Pete Walker told NCE that civil engineering departments “are not suddenly going to be awash with additional income”.
“Where the highest level fee of £9,000 is to be charged for civil engineering courses, this fee will represent a not dissimilar overall income to that which had been received previously,” he said.
ICE President Peter Hansford told NCE: “While the ICE understands the need for improved funding for universities, the impact of the fee rises will need to be monitored closely to ensure [the rise] doesn’t come at the expense of degree take up − particularly for integrated MEng programmes which are the benchmark standard for chartered level engineers throughout Europe.
“The UK has an enormous programme of infrastructure work to deliver in coming years − if degree take-up falls, the government must be prepared to step in to ensure we have the world-class engineering workforce to achieve it.”
Non-university civils routes in the spotlight
The rises have also raised the debate around non-university routes into civil engineering, and whether there will be adequate resources for those wishing to become civil engineers this way.
Recruitment firm Hays regional manager Lynne Crowe said that extra commitment to apprenticeships could help engineers.
“The government’s commitment to invest £180M for up to 50,000 additional apprenticeship places over the next four years and expand the University Technical Colleges programme to establish at least 24 new colleges is a step in the right direction in closing the skills gap,” she said. “But it is questionable as to whether this will provide individuals with skills required to become civil engineers.”
Engineering recruitment firm Gradcracker managing director Sean O’Connor said that initially the fees may prove to be a deterrent. “But there may be a positive effect on the quality of the students that go on to do a civil engineering degree - they may be more committed, confident and aspiring individuals,” he said.
“If the candidate pool does become smaller and the quality of these candidates increases, there may be a requirement for employers to raise graduate salaries. This would help offset the negative impact of the loan repayments.”