UK university tuition fees demystified, and potential consequences of Labour’s pledge to reduce them

Ed Miliband announced last week that Labour would reduce university tuition fees from £9000 to £6000 if elected. This undoubtedly makes for good headlines, but what does it actually mean, for students and universities?

To answer this, let’s look at the current fees, how they are administered and what they cover.

In fact the term ‘tuition fee’ is potentially misleading, as this can imply something that is paid upfront. In fact what happens is that students are effectively loaned £9000 a year to cover their tuition, which the government pays. Then, in the future, if and when their earnings exceed a certain amount (£21000 per annum), they start paying it back, at a rate of 9% of what they earn over the £21000. The size of the instalments they pay and the rate at which they pay them is a subject in its own right, but it is explained in detail here.  The loan is also written off after 30 years, making it possible, even likely that some students will not pay everything back. But from the student perspective, in going to university they are taking on a loan of £27000 for a 3-year degree, plus any living and maintenance costs. It is interesting that despite dire predictions, this has not put off students wanting to go to university, and on the contrary application numbers are generally up.

From the university perspective, the government pays them £9000 per student per annum, all of which is potentially repayable by the student. This is in contrast to previous systems, where the government paid a contribution to universities for each student they taught, which was a grant as opposed to a loan. The rationale for the change was that the government made the decision that they could no longer pay student tuition fees, especially with the increasing student numbers planned and anticipated. The £9000 is sufficient for some courses, but many universities say that it doesn’t cover the cost of some science, engineering and medicine courses, due largely to their increased equipment and facilities costs. In these situations they have to subsidise the courses from their own funds.

Turning now to Labour’s pledge to reduce tuition fees to £6000 per annum, from the student perspective it reduces the size of the loan they are taking on, which in turn will reduce the maximum  amount they have to pay back. But in practice, depending on their salary and how it increases with time, it might have less impact, because of the salary cap before repayment kicks in, and the 30 year write-off. (again, see Martin Lewis’ blog post, referred to above for more details).

From the university perspective this reduction can only work if the imbalance of £3000 per student per year is made up, otherwise they will be seriously out of pocket (and it was mentioned above that £9000 barely covers the cost of some courses). While Labour have alluded to how this amount will be recovered, it is by no means clear that it will work, and universities are justifiably concerned about it.

In conclusion, I have tried to explain tuition fees as they are now, and how a change would affect students and universities. A reduction in fees could potentially have a far more serious effect on universities than any positive effect on students, except from a psychological perspective, and I think it needs further thought!

Bob Beattie– a tribute


Bob Beattie (4 April 1939 – 10 February 2015)

Robert Thomas (Bob) Beattie was born in Liverpool in 1939. He graduated from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in Natural Sciences in 1961, and then took a Master’s degree in Psychology at Liverpool University.

He worked as a clinical psychologist in Oldham before coming to Keele in 1965 as the Psychology Department’s first lecturer in Clinical Psychology. He lived for a while in Keele Lodge, at the village end of the campus, close to the Sneyd Arms. Stuart Riley, who knew him then, said that ‘He had authority and had no trouble with the FY students, at a time when some staff did, even when he insisted in spelling fantasy with a “ph”!’

He moved to Lancaster University Management School in 1969, where he stayed until 1973. This was followed by a move to Ely, and freelance employment with the Civil Service Commission and the NHS in London.

When Bob returned to Staffordshire, he worked with Peter Mountain, and was a key member of Mountain & Associates Marketing Services, a management consultancy which was initially located in Newcastle (Staffs), but moved to Keele Science Park. After the company closed down, Bob remained at Keele, and from his offices in the Covert, did some marketing work for Keele.

In recent years, Bob played an amazing role informally counselling, advising, encouraging and helping postgraduate students, and there is no doubt that Keele benefited from this. Zak Zarychta recalls that ‘he was always prepared to listen and to offer both advice of a practical and more pastoral nature. He always started such conversations with “So what seems to be the trouble, dear boy?”’ When he decided to move to Ramsgate to be closer to his family, in 2012, the KPA honoured him with a portrait, which hangs over his favourite corner of the clubhouse, and a memorable send-off.

In my many conversations with Bob, I found him willing to listen sympathetically and to offer advice that was always supportive, often remarking that ‘the drones are hard at work doing their worst’, when discussing the latest edicts from university administration!

In conclusion, it was a pleasure and privilege to have known Bob. My sincere condolences to his family, and to Bob I say ‘rest in peace, thanks, and (in his own words), see you anon’.

(I am grateful to Chris Harrison for providing information on Bob’s early years at Keele, and to Zak Zarychta and Stuart Riley for their recollections).

The ‘magic’ of the FA Cup

With all the FA cup matches that have taken place this last weekend there has been the usual hype about the ‘magic’ of the FA Cup. I suspect the reality is somewhat different for most premiership clubs, whose main concern is staying in the PL and maybe getting into the European places! For them it is at best a distraction and at worst a nightmare.

There have been more than the usual number of upsets this weekend, but that isn’t ‘magic’ for all the clubs concerned. For example Chelsea and Manchester City are out, and Liverpool and Manchester United have replays. Getting knocked out is bad for team morale, and having a replay means yet another match to schedule in an already crowded timetable.

For premier league clubs, playing in Europe, either in the Champions League or the Europa League is an aspiration, and is far more important than the FA Cup. This is not just a matter of finance, but also prestige.

I think it will only be a matter of time before we see the FA Cup (and even more so the League Cup) becoming the province of the Championship and the lower leagues. PL clubs have neither the time nor the interest to participate any more, and although it might be a while before they admit it, it will happen sooner rather than later!

Lectures: to capture or not capture?

My colleague Katherine Haxton has recently published an interesting post on the recording of lectures. This has led me to think about what I do, whether it is working, and whether I could do more. Thinking about this now is well timed, since we resume teaching tomorrow, after our Autumn Semester exam period finished on Friday.

I have been recording the audio component of my lectures for four years now. My thinking has been that, with having the audio and the lecture slides, the students can (if they wish) reproduce most of what happened in the lecture to help their revision. No, it’s not the kind of full capture that Katherine does, and yes, any work done on the whiteboard is missed. But since I don’t tend to use selective release (i.e. I make the recordings available to all, regardless of attendance), there has to be some benefit for actually attending, and I haven’t (so far) worried too much about the part of the lecture that will be missed by those who are absent. After all, it’s still possible to borrow notes!

I haven’t done extensive research into how much the recordings are accessed – the information is there on Blackboard, and I must make an effort to look at it. But judging from comments on module questionnaires, and informal feedback, the recordings are appreciated.

Could I/should I do more? I have recently bought a Microsoft Surface tablet, and could (in principle) use that in my lectures, so that any examples, etc. are captured, by writing on its screen instead of the whiteboard. I am considering doing that, although there are some annoying minor technical issues to be overcome first, like getting an adaptor cable to connect the tablet to the data projector! On the other hand, my more mathematical examples are easier to explain with the extra space of the whiteboard (always assuming the room I’m in has one, which is by no means guaranteed!) I do make screencasts, usually on topics which require more detailed explanation, and there I use Camtasia, which works well. But it is time consuming, as Katherine says.

So, for now, I will continue what I’ve been doing. If my university decides to invest in lecture capture facilities, it will be interesting to see what route/procedure they follow. If anyone has experience of this kind of ‘centralised lecture capture’, it would be interesting to hear of their experiences, whether good or bad!

The day Churchill died

I remember the day Churchill died. We didn’t have a TV at home, but got the news from the radio. At the time my grandparents lived in Norwich, and we visited them that day. As a keen 8-year old, I remember asking my grandparents when we arrived at their house ‘have you heard the bad news?’ My grandmother (who died later in 1965) replied, somewhat resignedly that yes, they had. Apparently my grandfather had been going on about ‘Winnie’ all morning, and how he had met him in the war…

Those were different times, and people generally thought of Churchill as a hero, and his somewhat dubious politics were never mentioned or even thought of then. I can’t help thinking things would be very different now!

Mobile computing technology usage – early 2015 update

This is an update on my usage of mobile computing technology as of January 2015.

During 2014 I came to the conclusion that, good as they are, Android tablets won’t ‘cut the mustard’ for power users like myself, at least as far as using Microsoft software is concerned. There are plenty of good MS Office emulation packages out there, including QuickOffice and Documents to Go, all of which I have used extensively, but they can’t (and are unlikely to be ever able to) cope with documents and presentations involving more than just words (e.g. equations, Greek characters etc.). So I looked at Microsoft tablets, and I’m now using a Surface Pro 3, which does everything I need, including running the full version of Microsoft Office. This means I won’t be in the situation, as I was in in July 2014, where I had to produce an exam paper including equations while at a conference, but couldn’t, because the Android emulation software on my tablet couldn’t cope!

All this is not to say I have stopped using the Android platform. I still have my Nexus 7 tablet, now running Android 5.0 (Lollypop), which I take to meetings and use to take notes and keep up with e-mail etc. And I have just upgraded my smartphone, from my faithful and long-serving 2 year old Samsung Galaxy S3 to a Sony Xperia Z3. It has more power, so I don’t have to ration my app usage, the battery is better, and it currently runs Android 4.4.4 (KitKat), with a likely upgrade to Lollypop later in the year. It can also receive 4G, although how long before we have access to 4G in my locality remains to be seen!

My Review of 2014

The year began with some new teaching, on X-ray diffraction, which nicely coincided with 2014 being the International Year of Crystallography, and a research trip to Hannover. I had already attempted to go to Hannover in late 2013 but was thwarted by passport problems (see last year’s review). This trip went successfully, although I’m not sure if anything will come out of the project in the end!

The early months of the year were dominated by teaching activities, and there isn’t much of significance to report.

In June I had my final external examining trip to the University of Kent, and my second one to Nottingham Trent University. I have enjoyed the Kent post; the NTU one is challenging in that my role is less clear, but I am always well looked after, and everything is well organised. It was also nice to spend a couple of nights in the centre of Nottingham.

I was back in Kent in July for the Eurodim2014 conference that I had helped organise. It went very well, and as always it was good to see old friends, including several who came to the Eurodim1998 conference at Keele. I gave a talk in a session dedicated to Patrick Jacobs (see earlier posts for more details), and one of my PhD students, Scott Walker, attended. I also met Giordano Bispo, Mario’s student, who will be visiting me at Keele later in the year.

In August I had my usual trip to the Great British Beer Festival (see post for details) and it was as good as ever.

At the end of September, just before the start of the Autumn Semester, Angela and I had our first proper holiday for several years, a week at a resort hotel in Greece on a half-board basis. It was wonderful – because of the location and the fact that we didn’t have to do anything! We flew to Thessaloniki from Gatwick (after an overnight stay, of course), and were taken to and from the resort by coach. The holiday included some interesting trips to places of local interest, and we took part in some of those, as well as just enjoying the hotel amenities. We came back relaxed and refreshed, and I was straight into the Autumn Semester.

We have revamped our third year modules, and I had a new module on Quantum Chemistry which included material that I hadn’t taught for 15 years or more. So I wasn’t at all sure how it would go down with the students. I’m pleased to say that the module got good reviews, but I will have to wait and see how the exam goes before I can comment definitely.

My academic visitor from Brazil, Giordano Bispo, arrived at Keele on 18 October. He settled in quickly, and formalities like police registration were more straightforward than anticipated. Since arriving he has made good progress with his research, including presenting some of his work at a conference, as mentioned later.

Also in October, I was invited to give a lecture on Careers in Science Communication at a Life Sciences Careers Conference at Staffordshire University. This was a very interesting experience, and it was nice to wear my science communication hat again!

The semester was punctuated on the home front by our having to move out of our flat for 5 days to have some asbestos traces removed. It was a pain to arrange, but we were put up very comfortably in the Keele Management Centre. When we moved back into the flat the kitchen had to be repainted, and we decided the floor had to be resurfaced. It took some time to order the tiles, but thanks to some amazing work from Angela, everything was back in place in time for Christmas!

At the end of the semester I attended the annual RSC Solid State Chemistry Group meeting, which was held in Glasgow, along with Scott and Giordano (who presented a poster). This was a particularly good meeting, and was a fitting end to the year.

Christmas was spent at Keele, and was nice until I went down with a bad cold/flu bug which knocked me out for 5 days (and counting). But I’m hopefully recovering in time for the New Year!

Musical activities in 2014 included concerts with my orchestras in Nantwich and Middlewich, and my return, after several years, to the Keele Philharmonic Orchestra. This latter event was particularly pleasing, and the concert featured an amazing performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto at a concert in December. Also, on a musical theme, I purchased a tenor trombone this year, having come to the conclusion that if I was going to regularly play 1st trombone parts, it would be needed. Following my friend and fellow trombone player Bob Crawshaw’s advice, I chose a Vincent Bach ‘Stradivarius’ instrument; a straight concert-style tenor instrument with no extra Bb/F tubing. I used it first at a concert in June, and I am very pleased with it. For the Keele concert I played my old trusty bass trombone, which I hadn’t played for a while.

On the computing hardware front, I purchased a Google Nexus 7 tablet at the end of 2013, which I have used throughout the year. But I finally came to the conclusion that Android versions of Microsoft Office that do the things I need are unlikely to appear, so I used some of my external examiner payments to purchase a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 tablet, which is absolutely superb, and should serve me well on my travels and when working from home. In January I will also be upgrading my trusty 2-year old Samsung SG3 smartphone, which has served me well but which is now behind in its Android OS version, and can’t receive 4G, which will hopefully appear in our area soon!

To conclude, 2014 has been an interesting and challenging year, and I look forward to (and expect) much of the same in 2015.

Chemistry, Academia, Travel, Technology, Politics and Music


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