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Opinion/training – Funding shortfalls

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It has been widely reported the new coalition government refuses to rule out a rise in university tuition fees. It has also been widely reported that the Russell Group of leading universities is calling for a fee rise, arguing that students should pay more towards the cost of their courses. Engineering degrees are expensive to deliver, and the natural worry is the subject could see dramatic fee increases, which would deter students from applying, exacerbating the country’s skills shortages


However, according to Agnes Segal, manager of membership services at The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), the Russell Group has specifically said the fees for engineering students should not rise substantially.The Russell Group has recently sent a submission to Lord Browne, who the government has asked to conduct an independent review of the fees system. In the Russell Group’s submission, it argues against significant fee increases for subjects like engineering which have a ‘public return’ – that is, subjects which are important for the UK’s economic future.

Funding Issues
The engineering sector wants to see a high number of top quality students applying to study engineering degrees. The sector also wants engineering departments at universities to receive sufficient funding to deliver a good education. For any funding system to be successful, it must allow for both of these things.

Under the present system, university engineering departments receive money for teaching from two main sources: they receive public money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), and they receive tuition fees from students. According to the latest data, the total funding engineering departments receive is not meeting costs, with funding shortfalls of as much as 15% at some universities.

In the Russell Group’s submission to Lord Browne, it rightly argues universities must receive enough funding to cover the costs of delivering courses. As to where the funding comes from, the Russell Group argues a calculation must be made based on the extent of the “public benefit” of courses relative to the “private benefit” (ie benefit to the students taking the course). For a subject like engineering, which is expensive to deliver but vital to the UK’s economic future, a high proportion of the total funding should be provided by HEFCE. For subjects which are cheaper to run but with less obvious public benefit, a higher proportion of the total funding should be met by students through tuition fees.

At this stage, it is not possible to predict what will be the outcome of Lord Brown’s review. The engineering community is lobbying hard to make sure that engineering benefits, rather than suffers, from any future changes to the university funding system.

Whatever the future holds, prospective and current students must continue to manage their own finances. In this regard, IET Awards and Scholarships exist partly to help engineering students with the financial burden of university, as well as serving to raise the profile of engineering to prospective students and bringing students into the fold of IET membership.

The Student Perspective
Jonathan Mather, an engineering student at Oxford University, and recipient of such a scholarship has some interesting thoughts on tuition fees: “With the findings of the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding set to be unveiled in the forthcoming months, rising tuition fees are a major concern.  Any rises mean scholarships and bursaries will become even more important than they are now in determining whether someone can afford to go to university or not.

He continues: “As an Engineering student, I probably have the widest range of opportunities open to me in terms of scholarships, sponsorships and bursaries. This is almost entirely down to the direct relevance an Engineering degree has to industry, something other degrees simply don’t give you. I was fortunate enough to win the BP/IET Faraday Scholarship worth £3000 p.a. This has allowed me to become financially independent of my parents and to have a lot more financial freedom.

“For others a scholarship can be the deciding factor in whether they choose to go to University or not, and as such their importance should not be underestimated. I feel very lucky to have been the beneficiary of such a scholarship and I would encourage others to apply for as many as they can, as they really do make a huge difference.”

In Summary
If the UK is to meet skills needs for engineering, then universities must be given the funding they need to offer a high quality education. Given the need to increase the number of students applying to engineering, there are strong arguments for the government meeting the shortfall in funding, rather than asking students to foot the bill.

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