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Conceptualisations of value-for-money among graduates at English universities before and after the 2012 rise in fees
Steven Jones, Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester, Katy Vigurs Faculty of Business, Education and Law, Staffordshire University, Diane Harris Manchester Institute of Education, The University of Manchester
This article draws on interviews conducted with final year undergraduates at English universities in 2014 and 2015. The 2014 cohort was the last to graduate under a system in which students paid £3,350 per year; the 2015 cohort was the first to graduate under a system in which students paid up to £9,000 per year. In total, 92 detailed interviews were conducted, during which students were encouraged to speak freely about the levels of debt they had accrued, the kind of teaching they had encountered, the workplace relevance of the degree they had undertaken, and their plans for the immediate future. We find a drop in students reporting value-for-money, mostly attributable to the views of state-educated students in the 2015 cohort who did not qualify for bursaries. Two types of institution were sampled, a Russell Group university and a Million Plus university. Students at the Russell Group university were more likely to report value-for-money, and this gap widened following the introduction of higher fees. However, in both institutions, we found students conceptualising debt in complex and unexpected ways, often reporting high levels of uncertainty and disquiet, and attempting to pay off debts perceived as ‘urgent’ before embarking on a career or pursuing postgraduate options. An inadequate or incomplete understanding of the loan repayment model was commonplace, and, as such, findings have implications for both policy and practice. Changes to the funding model appear to have been fully understood and comfortably absorbed by some students, but others remain marginalised and fearful. Unsurprisingly, university is increasingly seen through a value-for-money lens, with consumeristic choices made and the language of the market regularly invoked. However, some evidence of resistance to more instrumental discourses of Higher Education are also observed. Indeed, when invited to reflect on their choices, a commitment to participate was often expressed strongly, especially by students eligible for bursaries. Many statements about value-for-money reflected conflicting underlying feelings towards a system that, on one hand, allows the accrual of human capital increasingly regarded as a prerequisite for job market entry, but, on the other hand, takes an emotional toll on those young people who are most sensitive to debt accumulation and who struggle to conceptualise their longer-term futures with confidence.
Value-for-money; student debt; undergraduate fees; student wellbeing.
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