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Higher tuition fees: the early results are in.

In the past few months, we’ve been blogging a lot about the potential impact of tuition fee increases. We’ve discussed their possible effects on social mobility, the quality of university research, and of course on student accommodation. But because the increases aren’t coming in until next year, much of this has been speculation. Now though, some early numbers are giving us a clearer picture of how fee rises are likely to transform higher education in this country.

According to a BBC Inside Out/ComRes survey of more than 1,000 16-18 year olds, 1 in 10 are “definitely put off” going to university by the increase in fees. That’s probably not such a dramatic number. But the next level shows wider concerns: 54% of those surveyed said they were “a bit put off but would probably still go”. Now you could just say that doesn’t change much – because let’s be honest, they’re still going to enrol. But there is an important social question here: rather than students treating university as the most exciting period of their lives, they’re going to start their first year with rumbles of discontent. We’ve already seen a number of student protests about fees, but also a lot of student involvement in events like the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. If economic and employment prospects for graduates stay as bleak as they are now, higher debts aren’t going to do anything for the collective student mood.

The survey also comes on the back of new figures which show that, for many institutions, applications are down significantly – in some instances, by over 40%. Meanwhile, Oxbridge applications are holding up. This could suggest that the increases are actually cementing, rather than challenging, social mobility issues – that they’re maintaining the elitist status of our oldest institutions. One stat that will be of interest to the government however, is that almost two-thirds of those surveyed said they would consider an apprenticeship – a boost to the government’s skills drive, although they probably weren’t expecting it to come at the expense of university applications.

The actual mobility of students is also a factor here. According to the survey, around half of students are considering overseas options, while a significant proportion are planning to study closer to home to save money. There are big differences between countries too: Scottish students can study for free at their local universities, while Welsh students get significant subsidies if they stay in Wales. So when you’re confronted with £9,000 a year at an English university, or next-to-nothing at your local Scottish or Welsh one, the choice seems a no-brainer.

It’s far too soon to tell what the impact will be on our business. But because we’ve been keeping up with the issues, we feel ahead of the game. The key for us is flexibility – having a business model that can change as the needs of UK students adapt to this new environment. It’s why we’re looking at flexible tenancy options, and even student hotels. Whatever happens, it’s clear that we can’t just take a “wait and see” approach. We need to be part of the solution, not part of the problem – demonstrating to students that great student accommodation can be great value too: a way to enhance their university experience without completely breaking the bank.

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