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UK: what has been the impact of the 2012 reforms?

As from 2012-13, UK Labour Government’s reforms introduced new fee levels– with a dramatic increase of tuition fees - and changes to the funding of undergraduate students. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, students that enrolling today will graduate with an average of GBP 44 035 (EUR 55 322) of debt, compared to GBP 24 754 (EUR 31 100) of debt that would have expected them if the reforms had not been introduced. 

Assessing the impact of higher tuition fees over the last two years has been the focus of a recent analysis by Universities Central Council on Admissions (UCAS), published this November. The analysis tracked how applications and admissions have changed, showing that higher fees reduced young demand: in fact, young application rates experienced a fall in 2012 - after a long pattern of annual increases - making young people around 5% less likely to apply. Although it is likely that application rates remain below what they would have been if higher fees had not been introduced, entry rates were unaffected and the proportion of the young population entering higher education has continued to increase steadily. Universities and colleges have become more likely to admit those young people who apply, enough to offset the lower demand, becoming more flexible in entry requirements. Inequality in accessing higher education seems also not to have increased, as neither application rates nor entry rates have shown any differential effect by background. 

In spite of these data, many critical voices continue to raise. On 19 November British students put in place a wide national demonstration against tuition fees and education cuts. On 18 November, the national Higher Education Commission launched a critical report titled Too Good to Fail: The financial sustainability of higher education in England. The report argues that the current higher education funding system is unsustainable and a better funding model must be developed. It estimates that 73% of graduates will not repay their debt in full, compared to just 25% under the old system. Particularly at risk are middle earners such as health professionals, teachers or public sector workers - who need a degree to enter their profession but will not be likely to pay back their loan within the repayment period. Also, the lack of control on public funding of student loans puts the financial stability of the sector at risk. Another point of concern includes the mismatch between the rapid expansion of undergraduates and the decline in postgraduate and part-time students. According to the report, the rapid undergraduate expansion might lead to a potential decline in quality for students.