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Forecasting university tuition fees

Update 19 April: The latest version of the forecasts can be found here.

On tuition fees, the general picture in England is clear. Top universities will charge the full £9,000. Less prestigious universities will charge less. But where does the “top” end, how low will the bottom go and whats going to happen in the middle?

These are crucial questions for potential students trying to decide whether uni is worth it, universities trying to balance their books and ministers worrying about paying for all those (much bigger) student loans. And the data points weve got from the universities that have announced their fees start to provide answers to these questions.

An enlightening picture emerges from some modelling weve done with data from Research Benchmarks to look at the likely level of fees universities will charge.

The biggest factor in the level of fees a university can support is prestige. In this, universities are little different from brands such as car makers. Mercedes Benz can charge more for cars than Toyota because of its reputation in the marketplace.

Where universities differ from car makers is in what they have to do to maintain their prestige. Mercedes need to make cars that actually are better than Toyotas – otherwise its brand value decays. But top universities dont obviously have to provide better teaching. Their prestige lies elsewhere, mainly in research. Thats the thing that most strongly influences the impression of employers, and hence the value of a degree in the jobs market.

In research, every department in the country is judged periodically in the Research Assessment Exercise. On the basis of the 2008 RAE therefore we can score every university on the quality of its research, providing a good proxy for its prestige in the market.

At Research Fortnight we have done this with the Research Fortnight Quality Index and the league table below shows the universities with significant undergraduates ranked in terms of their RF QI.

Glancing at the table, you can see immediately that it is not perfect. Few would rank the LSE (good as it is) above Oxford or Cambridge in terms of prestige.

On the other hand, the ratings do correspond quite closely to the kind of informal ranking we all keep in our head. Oxbridge is at the top. Then other Russell Group places and some of the smaller 1994 Group ones. The former polytechnics are mainly in the lower reaches.

So in terms of getting a picture of whats likely in the sector overall, the RF QI is quite a good starting point. And if we put in the data points from the six universities that have declared, then we can start to see what is going on.

At the top, it looks like the £9,000 club is going to extend quite a long way down. Exeter and Surrey are 26 and 32 in our table. That is a third of the way to the bottom.

At the bottom, the thing to note is how close to the very bottom is the one place that has committed to low fees, London Met. It is ranked 82 out of 95. The other place that has promised to go low, Liverpool Hope, is ranked even lower at third from bottom. This suggests that London Mets fees – which it promises will be between £6k and £7k – are close to the floor of what universities will charge.

Now we can get a first approximation of what to expect from other universities in the next month or so by assuming that their tuition fee level will on average reflect their position in the RF QI table. In that case, looking at the table below, we can draw the following conclusions:

* No university will go below £6,000

* The average level of fees will be £8,000 (as opposed to the governments expectation of £7,500)

* The “top” is deep – a third of universities will charge the full £9,000

* The “middle” is expensive – two thirds of universities will charge £7,500 or more.

* The “bottom” is small – only a third of universities will charge £6,000 – £7,000.

Well, its a crude model based on a small number of data points. The caveats are too numerous to mention. But its as good a picture as were going to get with what we know today.

The consequences if this forecast is borne out will be severe, for the level of fees it suggests are significantly higher than the government intended.

For students, it means bigger debts. And for the government, that may mean increased resentment from students and parents.

For the Treasury, it means the threat of higher lending for student loans and an increase in the national debt.

For the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, it means warnings against “clustering at the top end” have been ignored and increased pressure to dictate student numbers.

For universities, it means lingering uncertainty as to how the government will respond.

I will update this model as more universities declare their level of fees.

Updated with Manchester and Warwick, 23 March (though no forecasts change).

University RF QI Set Forecast
London School of Economics 60.3 9000
University of Cambridge 60.3 9000 9000
University of Oxford 59.8 9000 9000
Imperial College London 58.2 9000
University College London 55.8 9000
University of Manchester 54.4 9000 9000
University of Warwick 53.4 9000 9000
University of York 53.0 9000
University of Essex 52.9 9000 9000
University of Durham 51.2 9000 9000
Queen Mary, University of London 51.2 9000
University of Bristol 50.8 9000
University of Sheffield 50.7 9000
Lancaster University 50.7 9000
University of Southampton 50.6 9000
University of Leeds 50.4 9000
University of Bath 50.4 9000
Kings College 50.3 9000
Royal Holloway, University of London 49.9 9000
University of Nottingham 49.5 9000
Goldsmiths College 48.5 9000
University of Birmingham 48.3 9000
Loughborough University 48.2 9000
School of Oriental and African Studies 48.1 9000
Birkbeck College 47.9 9000
University of Exeter 47.8 9000 9000
University of Kent 47.6 9000
University of Newcastle 47.6 9000
University of Sussex 47.6 9000
University of the Arts London 47.3 9000
University of East Anglia 46.6 9000
University of Surrey 46.5 9000 9000
University of Liverpool 45.2 9000
University of Reading 44.9 9000
Open University 44.6 9000
City University 44.4 9000
Royal Veterinary College 44.4 9000
Cranfield University 43.7 8500
University of Leicester 42.3 8500
Aston University 42.1 8500
University of Brighton 41.6 8500
Keele University 41.3 8500
University of Hertfordshire 41.1 8500
University of Salford 40.4 8500
Birmingham City University 40.2 8500
University of Hull 39.7 8500
University of Bradford 39.3 8500
Brunel University 39.1 8000
De Montfort University 39.1 8000
St Georges, University of London 37.8 8000
University of East London 37.1 8000
University of Westminster 36.9 8000
University of Portsmouth 36.7 8000
London South Bank University 36.6 8000
Bournemouth University 35.8 8000
Oxford Brookes University 35.6 8000
Roehampton University 35.2 8000
University of the West of England 34.8 7500
Nottingham Trent University 34.8 7500
Middlesex University 34.7 7500
University of Plymouth 34.6 7500
Liverpool John Moores University 34.2 7500
Manchester Metropolitan University 34.1 7500
University of Northumbria 34.1 7500
University of Huddersfield 32.8 7500
Sheffield Hallam University 32.5 7500
Anglia Ruskin University 32.4 7500
Leeds Metropolitan University 32.4 7000
University of Bedfordshire 31.6 7000
Kingston University 31.3 7000
University of Wolverhampton 31.0 7000
University of Derby 29.8 7000
University of Teesside 29.8 7000
University of Central Lancashire 29.7 7000
University for the Creative Arts 29.4 7000
University of Lincoln 28.9 7000
University of Greenwich 28.2 7000
University of Sunderland 27.6 6500
Bath Spa University 27.3 6500
Harper Adams University College 27.2 6500
Coventry University 27.0 6500
London Metropolitan University 26.8 6500 6500
Canterbury Christ Church University 25.8 6500
University of Bolton 24.8 6500
University of Chester 23.7 6500
Thames Valley University 23.5 6500
University of Gloucestershire 23.5 6500
Buckinghamshire New University 23.4 6000
University of Northampton 22.8 6000
Staffordshire University 22.4 6000
Southampton Solent University 20.1 6000
Liverpool Hope University 18.7 6000
University of Cumbria 14.2 6000