Families may move to escape fees hike
Hefce warns of a cross-border exodus that could distort local economies. David Matthews writes
The potential for "fee refugees" who move their families from England to Scotland or Wales to avoid high tuition costs has been raised once again, this time in an official risk assessment of the different funding systems across the UK.
The analysis published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England also says that there is a "question of affordability" over the devolved system, because governments will have to fund students wherever they go in the UK, but will only be able to control student numbers in their own jurisdiction.
From next year, UK students will face very different tuition-fee arrangements depending on whether they live in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
English students will have to pay up to £9,000 a year wherever they go in the UK, while Scottish students will continue to pay nothing to study in Scotland. Fees for Welsh students will be fixed at £3,465 regardless of where they study, but Northern Irish students will be charged a similar amount only if they stay in their own region.
The Hefce paper on potential student flows warns that families, "particularly those close to the borders", could seek to "domicile themselves in Wales or Scotland in order to benefit from favourable fee arrangements". It adds: "This could have distortive effects on local economies and housing markets if it occurred with significant numbers."
Bob Osborne, emeritus professor of public policy at the University of Ulster, said that any such impact would most likely be felt close to the Scottish or Welsh borders.
"If [a family] was living 15 miles from the Scottish border then you can see how they might try to wangle it," he said.
Professor Osborne said that for a family with three children - each of whom could have to pay up to £27,000 in fees in England - moving across the border could make sense, particularly because Scottish house prices were relatively low. But he doubted there was going to be "a mass exodus of people from Surrey to Glasgow".
The Hefce paper also says that devolved governments have to cover tuition-fee loans regardless of where a student goes in the UK, but that "student number controls only capture students in a country's own [institutions]".
"There is a question of affordability of reforms for each country, and the extent to which this creates a risk in subsequent years that increasing loan or fee grant costs will impact on future funding," it says.
Professor Osborne agreed that it was difficult to predict how many students from one home nation might opt to study at the UK's more expensive universities, potentially creating financial difficulties for governments providing subsidised loans.
"You can't stop the Scottish student saying, 'I'm off to Cambridge,' even though he would be free to study in Scotland. This has immediate financial implications [for the Scottish government]," he said.
He added that the liability could change every year depending on how heavily English universities recruited students from the rest of the UK.