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In times of economic uncertainty, questions on the purpose, value, and investment of higher education (HE) come to the fore. Such questions have a particular relevance in the study “The decision-making and changing behavioural dynamics of potential higher education students: the impacts of increasing tuition fees in England” (2013) written by Stephen Wilkins, Farshid Shams, and Jeroen Huisman. One of the major challenges of higher education is funding and how the government is providing the needs of the students. Due to inadequate funds, raising tuition fees becomes inevitable (Wilkins, Shams, & Husiman, 2013, p. 126). This article focuses on the changes in the English tuition fee policies and how it correlates to student choice for higher education institutions (p. 125). Research confirms that financial considerations are the most important factors in the student-decision process when choosing a HEI (Maringe et al. 2006).
Higher Education in the UK is no longer just a public good, but a public good with a private cost. Since 2006, all university students in the UK have been charged a tuition fee and each following year tuition fees have increased (Wilkins, Shams, & Husiman 2013, p. 126). By 2012, the UK government decided on a £9000 tuition cap in England (Business Innovation & Skills [BIS] 2011). With the recent changes in the global economies and rising unemployment rates the question arises: how are students understanding and responding to increases in tuition fees? The study examines three scenarios as the possible outcomes of the increase in tuition fees: 1) not entering HE; 2) going abroad; and 3) looking for a cheaper alternative in the UK (Wilkins, Shams, & Husiman, 2013, p. 129).
The central focus of the study is to evaluate whether financial factors take a first priority in students’ choice of applying to higher education institutions (HEIs). A survey was used to collect data amongst students in their final year of secondary school, specifically students who were following a General Certificate of Education Advanced Level programme (A-levels) in England (Wilkins, Shams, & Husiman, 2013, p. 131). To supplement the survey, two focus group discussions were conducted, each lasting one hour. According to the study, the first group “consisted of five year 12/13 students who were studying A-levels at a school sixth form, while the second group had four students from a further education college” (Wilkins, Shams, & Husiman, 2013, p. 131). The researchers do not go into depth as to why they choose this selective group of students. It makes one think of the potential biases of selecting these students and if their perceptions were tailored to match the propositions. By only conducting a discussion with nine students the study cannot fully capture the diversity of choice within the student body.
Wilkins, Shams, and Husiman (2013) assess the impacts of the tuition fee increase by presenting the following six propositions:
- Proposition 1: Facing substantially higher tuition fees, financial issues will become the key influencer determining a student’s higher education choices.
- Proposition 2: Facing substantially higher tuition fees, working-class students will be the most likely to consider not entering higher education.
- Proposition 3: Facing substantially higher tuition fees, working-class students will be the most likely to seek cheaper higher education opportunities.
- Proposition 4: Facing substantially higher tuition fees, females will be more likely than males to be influenced by financial issues when making decisions about higher education.
- Proposition 5: Facing substantially higher tuition fees, students in England are still not likely to consider studying at higher education institutions (HEIs) abroad.
- Proposition 6: Facing substantially higher tuition fees, students who take at least one modern foreign language at A-level will be more likely to consider studying at HEIs abroad. (language influences). (p. 129-31)
The six propositions have a focus on gender, language, socioeconomic status, and geographic considerations. However, a potential flaw within the propositions is not considering ethnicity. Student ethnicity is not considered within the study nor the impacts of ethnic background on students choosing a HEI. This is a potential limitation when considering student choice of HEIs in the United States, specially the historically black colleges including Howard University, Spelman College, and Hapmton University. Since these schools do not have large endowments in comparison to large prestigious HEIs such as Harvard University, with an endowment of 36 billion dollars (Mulvey, J., and Holen, M., 2016), they cannot offer as much financial aid. Therefore, many students decide to attend a different HEI which can offer a more attractive financial aid package, but at the cost of sacrificing the opportunity of being part of a unparalleled cultural experience at a historically black college (Gasman, M., 2009). In the United States, endowments are the universities’ largest financial asset and serves a major determinant in student choice in HEIs. This study would benefit by having a comparative approach to HEIs in the United States if time and word limit permitted.
A further point of tension within the study is the ambiguity of terms. Firstly, two out of the six propositions (ie. propositions two and six) did not provide a description which puts into question the validity of the study. Furthermore, the phrase “not entering HE” occurred nine times throughout the study. The researchers did not specify in any of those sentences what it means by “not entering HE.” An important question to ask is whether “not entering HE” refers to students taking a gap year and eventually returning to higher education or entering the labour market and never pursuing HE. This is a significant distinction because if students are taking a gap year but will return to HE it shows that they are impacted by the economy and having financial stability is an important consideration for them before starting their studies. There are no statistics in the study to outline the percentage of students not pursuing HE and no words to explain their decision. These are important considerations to help build depth within the study.
The epistemological assumptions of this study help us to understand student choice of HEIs by hypothesizing and testing empirical approaches through a natural science lens. On the other hand, the ontological assumption concerns the natural world, taking in account the effects of the global financial crisis in 2008, and the human behavior within the global HE context (Pring 2005, p. 232). Wilkins, Shams, and Husiman embrace quantitative methods approach to the study, using SPSS software to generalize the findings and test the propositions. Since the data is in a numeric form, statistical tests are applied in making statements about the data. Quantitative studies help to produce data that is descriptive but difficulties arise when it comes to their interpretation. For instance, it is helpful that the study includes the demographics and socioeconomic statuses of the participants, but the study would have more depth if it integrated a qualitative approach in addition to the quantitative research. The students had a one hour discussion on the questionnaire yet there is no student voice, only statistics from SPSS. With group discussion responses we can have a qualitative measure of analysis of the data caption. Without properly interpreting the data behind these numbers, it is difficult to say why students choose HEIs based on financial considerations.
In conclusion, the rise of tuition fees in England has altered the ways in which students choose to enter HE and if so, which HEIs. Wilkins, Shams, and Husiman mention that this study is not intended for policy reform (p. 137); however, it calls attention to the pressures placed on students in determining to enter HEIs and brings awareness to the major factors of student choice. An important consideration for restructuring this study is incorporating a mixed methods approach, by utilizing qualitative and quantitative methods. Without the necessary qualitative data, there is no authentic way to determine why students are choosing a certain HEI. If Wilkins, Shams, and Husiman used an interpretive paradigm and observations from the discussion groups to investigate the issues on the increase tuition fees it would create a more holistic picture of the student experience and behaviors with statistical data to prove the point. Lastly, the data used in this study was gathered before the increase in fees in 2012 (Wilkins, Shams, & Husiman, 2013, p. 129). Students were aware of the fee increase but it was not a real determining factor for them at that point in time. It would be most helpful to have a follow-up study at the same colleges from which the data for this study was collected, using the questionnaires, and group discussion in order to compare and contrast student opinions and choice patterns overtime.
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