Talking Tuition – With Jeff and Ieuan
Earlier this year we broke to you the news that the university are planning to increase fees by as much as 40% on some master courses. Many students responded to this news with upset and confusion. I decided to arrange interviews with your elected SU Education Officer Jeff Saddington-Wiltshire and KPA President Ieuan Smith about these fee rises, tuition fees in general and what this means for student. I posed commonly asked questions along with student submissions and statements from students who’d got in contact with us following the initial article;
Sol: First of all I would just like to ask you what your role as KPA president/ Education officer entails?
Ieuan: Yep, I mean I guess I’ll firstly start by explaining what the KPA is, because I think [for] many people it’s something that they’re not very much aware of. I think it makes my job description a bit more understandable. In short what we are is we’re an independent students’ union and charity that specifically represents the interests of postgraduate students here at Keele. We hold Keele to account and make sure that their decisions regarding postgraduates are in students interests. We also try to make the postgraduate community as kind of a part of that experience. We try to make sure postgraduates have the best experience whilst they’re here through events, activities our club house, all that kind of stuff.
In regards to my role I am the leading sabbatical officer, the chair of the trustees and the CEO of the charity. So what that basically means is that I am responsible for the day-to-day strategic running of the organisation. I also coordinate the strategic representation and functions that the association does. It sounds a little bit big-headed but I guess to a certain degree it makes me the kind of “figure-head” for postgraduate representation at Keele.
Jeff: Well, the primary function of the roles is to represent students and their academic interests. And for me it’s about how students have individual issues throughout their whole student journey so it could be to do with assessments, picking modules, any personal issues that they’ve got going on. It’s about supporting those issues in the short term, and if they’re wider university problems coming up with initiatives and policies to hopefully solves some of the issues that students are facing.
Sol: In your position, how do you interact with the university and the fee setting process?
Jeff: I’ve gotta’ be honest it’s not me directly, Tom Snape through his seat on council with the university governors will have more of a direct role in the fee-setting process. So my role is more indirect I guess, so it’s more gathering of feedback from students about value-for-money for undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Making sure students get a fair deal out of the tuition fees they’re paying. So at a postgraduate level it’s about the quality of the courses and the advancement of knowledge and for undergraduate courses Keele [University] are more constrained by government regulations, so obviously the cost of [undergraduate] courses have gone up to £9,250 for freshers this year and we didn’t have much of a say in that because it’s a general university trend for that to happen. And when fees went up to £9,000 in 2012 it was accepted that universities pretty much had no choice, if they wanted to survive. But with the recent increase in the postgraduate fees Tom and Ieuan from the KPA have been at council meetings raising concerns from students and I’ve got full trust in them as fellow elected officers to represent students.
Ieuan: In regards to the university we sit on every conceivable committee that you can think of including university council, so I have seat on university council. So every single avenue of the university you can think of we sit on the committees, but we also have more informal meetings and communications with lots of members of staff, which means we can sit down with them and discuss issues. We quite often work together with the university to try and address problems that post-graduates face and basically try to make positive changes for the postgraduate experience here at Keele. Regarding fees, at the moment the only time we’ve technically become aware of rises has been at University Council. Originally any fee changes that were over 5% had to go to university council and that would normally be the first time we’re aware of it in a formal capacity. We’ve now been made members of the Student Numbers and Fees Group, so in the future we should be part of the group that is discussing and setting fees.
Sol: How will the masters fee increases effect the members you represent?
Ieuan: In terms of current members it shouldn’t really affect them at all, these fee rises are for the next cohort. In regards to the next cohort, obviously they’re going to see [on average] a 40% rise in their fees. However they should also see an equal rise in their alumni discount, which some people know as the graduate bursary. We’ve also been able to get the university to commit to seriously review postgraduate taught provision, to make sure it’s actually to a standard that justifies these fees.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s a very tricky one. I think in the first instance, the increase means that some students will have to find money from their own pocket to fund their courses. Obviously with a lot of postgraduate taught courses in particular, very recently students could access student finance for those courses but I think that’s been used as a caveat to increase tuition fees cos the university can say ‘well you’ve received funding for this, so we can put up our prices’. So I think the impact primarily is that financial one, it’s something experienced at undergraduate level as well where loans and maintenance loans don’t [always] cover living costs. And even though Keele, Stoke and Newcastle-Under-Lyme are very affordable areas the cost of accommodation and the cost of living is continuing to increase and there are marginalised student groups, from widening participation backgrounds, who might not have access. So some of the impact will that student just can’t do those postgraduate courses moving forward. And it’s a real problem across the sector, I think Keele’s postgraduate courses on the whole are pretty good and still despite the increases that’s should come in in September 2018, they’re still quite cheap compared to the rest of the sector but that doesn’t mean tuition fees should rise exponentially.
Sol: Emma asks : “I applied to study at Keele because of its value-for-money, I’m now worried about finding adequate funding, what options for PG funding are there at Keele?”
Ieuan: The first thing that I’d say to Emma is that, all sorts! It’s an incredibly complex picture and it’s individual to the student as well. First of all I’d advise all students to set up a meeting with us directly and we can go through your options with you. We are doing some masters funding talks currently, they may have passed by the time this goes out, but if the demand is there we’ll do some more. But at the very least they can contact us directly. However, in short as a summary you’ve got government postgraduate loans, all Keele alumni will receive a discount which is 20% of your tuition fees, there’s the graduate scholarship which awards a £500 fee discount if you attained a first at undergraduate level, there’s the access scholarship so if you’re a disabled student or a student from a low-participation neighbourhood you can get £850. There’s lots… come ask us!
Sol: How do you think the fee increases at the masters level will affect students from low participation backgrounds and the BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) attainment gap?
Jeff: Yeah, that’s a great question! There’s the barrier to entrance already but then it’s the students with caring responsibilities, commuting students, mature students that I think there will be an impact upon. I think the first barrier is the original access to start the course in the first place but I think you will see a lot of attrition or withdrawal rates just because students can’t afford to do the course and the reflects badly on the university but also for the students who’re saying this is ‘something I really want to do’. I don’t think any student no matter what the background should have any financial barriers to education. There was some interesting research done out of the Teaching Excellence Framework, which Keele received a gold for in the summer of 2017 and around 20% of participating universities did also get gold, however Keele we’re ranked about 7 in the country based on the metrics and the report that they gave, however a consequence of that is that BME students are less likely to apply to TEF Gold institutions and that is extremely worrying. I think at Keele particularly it’s about using the data gathered and driving forward, asking students ‘what’s your view of higher education? What’s your experience like at Keele? Do you feel like you belong here?’ and that’s where every university needs to go to next!
Sol: How are the university expecting the number of people enrolling next year on to masters courses to change next academic year?
Ieuan: I can’t really say for the next academic year, but what I can say is that the university’s long-term plan is that they want to make sure postgraduate students should number about a fifth of the student population here at Keele. The university currently uses a system where they look at the number of full-time equivalent students, so many part time masters students are studying maybe one module, stats wise 2 part-time students might make one “full-time equivalent”. However, individually we have around 3,000 members here at the KPA. I think the university, because they read it in that way, I think they feel they have less postgraduates than they do, the reality is we do have quite a lot. What it is, is that the vast bulk of them are not very well connected to the campus, either because they’re doing it distance or they’re doing modular studies.
Sol: How difficult is it for the KPA/SU and its members to effectively negotiate fee rises and the possible benefits that can be attained with them?
Ieuan: In regards to fee rises the biggest problem we have in effectively negotiating the rises is basically the impact that government policy has on university decision-making. The government has made it very clear that the burden of funding a degree should fall on the student and not on the taxpayers. As a result this has meant that universities are now reliant on tuition fees to fund all the activities that they do whether that be the widening participation initiative, the student experience, teaching or research. In that light it makes it really hard for us to negotiate against that because you’re effectively negotiating for the university to lose money and shrink investment in these things. That’s why in my opinion, when it comes to negotiating fee rises the actual negotiations we need to be doing is with the government. Because of this we’ve been working hard to try and create a national postgraduate voice and a really strong one that can lobby government, at the moment there isn’t much of one. I’ve started getting together with other officers around the country to say to the government this isn’t a sustainable system for funding universities.
In regards to negotiating benefits, which is more of a local thing, we do negotiate the support we can offer to postgraduates in the forms of bursaries, obviously the benefits they should be receiving from paying these fees. If they’re paying higher fees we want to see that returning back to them in the form of better investment in postgraduate resources whether that means increasing our stipend [block grant] so we can do more activities or putting better investment into the education on courses. We have been able to make some positive changes, we’ve made changes to induction, fee deadlines, continuation fees and rises in the alumni discount.
Jeff: I think it’s very difficult, I’d almost say it’s impossible. Mainly because, as I’ve previously mentioned, the national pressure and the external funding implications on tuition. I think it’s more a combination of approaches to make change, so if it’s something that students unions, students themselves and the NUS (National Union of Students) are fully supporting then it’s something we can try and push for as a collective student body. But I think students will vote with their feet and if they see, particularly with postgraduates courses, that they aren’t getting value-for-money then Keele will need to consider some curriculum changes to make their offer even more appealing. Because if students aren’t being offered value-for-money that will filter down, and current postgraduate students will be telling undergraduate students ‘it’s good but it’s not value-for-money’. Some of it comes down to national politics, which students have very little say over. But I think the way to overcome that is a united front led primarily by NUS to try and challenge tuition fee rises.
Sol: Ross Asks: “Hey man, I’m planning on doing an international year coming up in August/September, will this affect my masters funding from gov.org?’
Ieuan: If he’s a current undergraduate student it wouldn’t affect it. But in regards to, if he’s a current masters student about to do international year it shouldn’t, provided he lets them know. The only thing he does need to be aware of though is that he can only take up to the £10,280 limit. So I’d say book an appointment to see me, come and have a chat and we’ll check everything over!
Sol: What changes are the government making to the funding of masters courses, and what impact will this have on me as a student?
Jeff: Again great question. The student finance coming in means students can apply for, I think it’s like up to £10,280 worth of loan. I think it is a positive change, and it is a change done in good faith, I think it is an attempt to encourage people to do postgraduate degrees. I think part of it is that so many people are doing undergraduate degrees now, previously it was like ‘if you do and undergrad it doesn’t matter what you get, you’ve got an undergraduate degree, you’re outstanding’. Now it’s that you need a first or a master’s degree to be seen in that light. So it was done in good faith but it can lead, as we’ve seen at Keele, to an increase in tuition fees. In this case the benefit to students has been taken away really and I think the main impact on students is more debt in the end.
Ieuan: I think the most common one that people will be aware of is the introduction of the new postgraduate loan. It is an incredibly positive step forward, cos’ this is allowing more people to have access to masters education. When I did my masters I was the last year before government postgraduate loans came in and the only way you could fund your masters was either through family support or through private bank loans and there are many issues with a bank loan; namely if you don’t have a job when you finish your course you’ve still gotta’ make repayments! But as I’m sure most students are aware of, the loan is set to a limit of £10,280 which is not sufficient to cover everything, particularly if you’re to go to another university, there are institutions where tuition fees are more than that. It’s important that we lobby government to say, actually this is unfair when you compare it the undergraduate funding system it’s highly unfair.
Sol: Why has the university decided to slightly decrease fees for some masters course, for example the MA Learning and Teaching in Higher Education course which is down 18.4% on its part-time programme?
Ieuan: If I remember correctly, when they did this review of the fees they compared it to benchmark universities and tried to make their fees be more level with their benchmark competitors. The way it worked initially, is that fees were set by the schools and there was no clear logic to the funding structure and I think there was a few exceptional courses that were more expensive than the sector average.
Sol: Do you think more transparency from the university regarding what fees are spent on would make students feel more accepting of the costs of university?
Jeff: One-hundred percent! It’s something I’ve pushed for to have the university be more transparent about where tuition fees go and what other external funding does the uni receive. I’m not saying that the university have to send an email to all students with their accounts. But I think some visual infographic to say ‘well your money goes here’ would go a long way. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is the pay level of lecturers, there’ a lot of press coverage about Vice-Chancellors pay. If you look at the gap between VC pay and the pay of a recently qualified lecturer, who might be starting on around 21-22K despite having an undergraduate degree and a masters and a PhD, its big. If there were some stats released around how much a recently qualified lecturer is paid, a senior lecturers pay and a head-of-school, I think those stats would be very useful.
Sol: Ieuan, anything else you’d like to say?
Ieuan: I think the thing I would like to say is do get in touch, do come and speak to us and let us know what you’re feeling about anything! Whether it be positive or whether it be negative, whether it’s about fees or not. Let us know because the information you give us is powerful, it means that we can do things for you, but it also means we can pass that information on to the university. If students are interested in getting involved in this don’t forget we’ve got our elections coming up, they’ll be taking place after the SU elections around Easter. Come and campaign with us! Let us know what we can do for you!
Sol: Last question Jeff from Eleanor, Is there anywhere I can sell my soul to pay off my student debts
Sol: Haha, so on brand I love it!
Contact Ieaun, KPA President on all matters postgraduate at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact Jeff, Education Officer Keele SU for all matters fees and educational at email@example.com
Contact Sol Gibson, Kube Reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org