Welcome Week 2012 may have seemed the usual riot of massive nights, thronging freshers’ fairs, and the now obligatory Student Union indignation at some fresh disgrace by club promoters. All fuelled by enough personal pizzas to pave the way to East Didsbury and back. Same old, same old. However, there was, of course, something very specific about the new first years that marked them as different to other undergraduates.
There is no need to rehearse the progress of the amendment to Higher Education Act 2004, even less the furious but ultimately unheeded opposition to it. Anyone even slightly interested in higher education in the UK will be well aware of the arguments against increasing tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year.
Now, nearly two years since the law was changed and as the first cohort affected are finding their feet at their chosen institutions, it’s time to ask the question: what’s been the impact on the students studying History?
At the end of August, the Independent Commission on Fees report showed that the overall number of UCAS applications was down by 8.8% compared to 2010, suggesting that the fee increases discouraged many from applying to University. It is worth noting that figures from 2011 are up on both 2010 and 2012, an obvious reason for this being that students who had a choice decided not to take a gap year, saving themselves £6,000 a year. This could have contributed to fewer students applying in 2012. Does this mean that next years’ numbers will be back up to 2010 levels as applicants acclimatise to this new and harsher economic reality?
Hannah Barker, Head of History at Manchester University says that it is simply too early to say: “We just don’t know what the increase in tuition fees is doing yet, because there isn’t the evidence base.” What can be ascertained from the data UCAS has released so far is that the numbers of applications to study History have been more robust. This, Professor Barker suggests, is to be expected: History at Manchester is a very popular degree within a Russell Group University.
So, it seems that the number of students studying History here is probably not going to slump dramatically.
But a major concern about the increase in fees was that it would have a differential impact on potential applicants based on their economic background; this remains a concern for Professor Barker: “My worry is that it will put people from poorer backgrounds off and our student body will become more homogenous and more privileged.” The History Department is redoubling its efforts to engage with local schools. The Independent Commission on Fees did not find a disproportionate reduction in applications from people in poorer or less advantaged communities, but also consider it too early to make any firm conclusions.
Will higher tuition fees mean that History students spend more time in the Library? Who knows, that might be one good thing to come out of the fee rise!