Middle-ranking universities have revealed this week that top students could be offered cash incentives—in a reduction in fees—to try and bring in more students due to predictions that less students will apply as a result of higher fees. A-level students with grades of AAB or higher could be sought after at these universities, damaging hopes that less well-off students will afford to go.
This is one of several negative outcomes of an incentive for top students. In 2009/10, around 56,000 students gained grades of AAB or higher. The government believes that this will increase in 2011/12 to around 65,000.
Approximately two thirds of students with these top grades attended private school, with parents that could afford higher tuition costs. This proposition can be good for those with good grades who otherwise may not have been able to afford to go to university; however, other, more affluent students may take advantage of the reduction in loans.
This also could benefit universities by increasing these middle-ranking universities status in the league tables. A rise in status could provide competition for those at the top of the tables, but should be based on merit rather than sneaky tactics.
Ultimately, both universities and students will not benefit from these schemes. If universities that offer cash incentives do not have a great reputation, their CVs may not have the added boost they otherwise would have had when applying for jobs after graduation.
Another worrying factor that will be less beneficial is that gimmicks from universities will lead to a lack of faith in the entire university system. If the status of the university does not matter, what will be the point of exams and league tables? Cash incentives will reduce the reputation of a degree and will transfer the social division seen in private versus state schools to another level in higher education.
Elite universities know that students will pay for the quality of education that they provide, even if it is at a price of £9,000 a year. The overall debt is not more than a small mortgage would be, and student loans are paid back directly through payment systems. Instead of these cash incentives, universities and the government should focus on helping those from more low-income backgrounds have the opportunity to to university—an opportunity that they may not otherwise have had.