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The rising cost of education

15 November 2010

Will raising the university tuition fee cap to £9,000 in 2012 have a future adverse effect on the UK’s science, engineering and technology sectors? There is clear polarisation on this issue between the student body, on the one hand, and those organisations either representing the business ‘consumers’ of postgraduate talent or the universities themselves, on the other.

Last week, thousands of students, lecturers and their communities took to the streets of London in the wake of the government's response to Lord Browne's review of higher education funding and student finance. With the threat of higher fees come quite justifiable fears of thwarted social mobility and discrimination based purely on ability to pay. And with an estimated nine per cent of the 2009 graduate class still looking for work, young people about to embark on a university course will now be thinking twice about investing in their education when it comes at such a high cost.

CBI deputy director-general, John Cridland said the coalition government has rightly recognised that, if we are to maintain the high quality and international standing of our higher education system, the cap on tuition fees had to change. “With public funding being reduced, the changes made to student contributions will enable universities to recoup some money, but there will be no real winners,” he concedes. “Faced with very difficult circumstances, a sensible compromise seems to have been reached.”

Mr Cridland’s view is echoed by Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group which represents our top research-intensive universities. “Lifting the fee cap to £9,000 for new students in England from 2012 is a welcome reform that will help our universities maintain and enhance their world-class status,” she says. “Increased graduate contributions will provide a life saving cash transfusion for a sector that would otherwise be seriously ailing from the spending review’s deep cuts.

“These reforms are the only way for the UK to remain a serious global player in higher education, while our international competitors are pumping billions into their leading universities. This is now make or break for our universities. Our graduates need to compete with the best in the world, and we would be letting them down if we did not ensure they get the very best education.”

The Russell Group opposes the view that higher fees have a direct impact on access to university courses. Dr Piatt claims the evidence is “clear” that fees do not deter poorer students from university, particularly when combined with what she describes as the “progressive” repayment system now proposed by the coalition.

Since the introduction of variable fees, the Russell Group says the universities that it represents have attracted more students than ever from so-called non-traditional backgrounds. In essence, higher education is ‘free’ to students taking out loans and is ultimately paid for by graduates in work earning above a certain threshold – currently £21,000 per annum. Wendy Piatt says the graduate repayment scheme means that no student has to pay for their higher education until they are earning a reasonable salary. She also believes the repayment system proposed by the coalition is “fair and progressive” in protecting low earners, while higher earners will be expected to contribute more through variable interest rates.

Whether that £21,000 threshold has been set too low, or the proposal to burden those graduates who succeed in gaining well remunerated employment with higher interest rates is fair, unfair, progressive or regressive, are very much moot points.

Managing your motors
Motor manufacturer, ABB believes industry is all too ready to maintain its existing stock of aging motors, relying on rewinds rather than investing in modern, more reliable and efficient units. Research carried out by the company reveals that UK industry is failing to manage its motor inventory with any degree of efficiency, and is consequently incurring millions of pounds of unnecessary downtime, repair and energy costs. These concerns are driven by the widening gap between the value of new industrial low voltage motor sales in the UK – estimated at £70m – and the motor repair industry, which is conservatively valued at twice that amount. While mechanical repairs, such as bearings and shafts, will always be needed, ABB’s Steve Ruddell thinks motor users have gone over the top with rewinds.

“No one should be making inferior motors today,” he says. “The technology and materials used by today’s motors gives them an expected life span in excess of 20 years. They should be durable and highly reliable. Yet many repairers have motors less than 5 years old on their benches for rewind alongside older motors having had multiple rewinds. It is analogous to the car industry. Today you rarely see a rusty car and very rarely see cars breaking down. Technology has improved the reliability and life span of cars and the same is true for low voltage motors.”

Mr Ruddell is convinced the reason for so many rewinds and premature failures is a lack of awareness amongst end-users as to the need to create a motor management plan. “It appears much easier when a motor fails to have someone collect it, rewind it and reinstall it. But what if this is a critical, continuous process application? Taking it off line could cost hundreds of pounds per hour.”

With electric motors accounting for 65 per cent of all electrical energy consumed by industry, a motor management plan can help repay any upfront investment within weeks, if not days, if an unplanned outage can be prevented. With such a plan, the user can minimise, if not totally eliminate, many unplanned outages, maximising uptime and profitability whilst simultaneously reducing energy bills and carbon emissions.

To address these issues, ABB has launched ‘MotorAdvantage’. The scheme, involves a simple three stage approach that includes a site visit by a motor specialist who, after assessing the installed motor base of the plant, identifies up to five motor-driven applications that offer the best potential for further analysis. From this, the end-user’s current policy in the event of a motor failure can be assessed and the financial impact on the company quantified. Improvements can then be suggested with regards to policy and stockholding, and the energy use of the current installation determined.

With MotorAdvantage, a few simple measurements can show the likely time to a motor failure and the impact on production can be calculated. It also gives a realistic view of only having a repair policy when compared with a replacement policy. The scheme aims to show the value of holding critical spares and/or using a third party to hold replacement motors within close proximity to the site to minimise inventory.

“We want to show industry that a few small steps can lead to significant leaps in a plant or process profitability, says Mr Ruddell. “Normally motor management plans are overly ambitious trying to assess every single motor on a plant. By proving the benefits on a selected handful of motors, and coupled with our advice on implementation, we hope that companies can make small but significant steps towards improving their plant.” For more information click here. 

Les Hunt


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