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What does the UK’s university fees review mean for students?

Theresa May
May has admitted a fees review is necessary as the current system, which she was a part of creating, is leaving new graduates in up to $80,000 in debt. Source: Shutterstock

UK Prime Minister Theresa May has launched a year-long review on the cost of university in the UK after admitting the country has “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”.

Universities can currently charge up to GBP9,250 (US$12,930) per annum in tuition fees, and student living costs average at GBP12,200 (US$16,950) per year.

May has admitted a fees review is necessary as the current system, which she was a part of creating, is leaving new graduates in up to GBP57,000 (US$80,000) in debt.

“All but a handful of universities charge the maximum possible fees for undergraduate courses. Three-year courses remain the norm. And the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course,” said May in a speech on Monday.

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Tuition Fees and Loans

The Conservative government raised the amount universities charge for tuition in hopes it would create a competitive market. The best universities were supposed to charge the most, while less prestigious institutions and courses with fewer contact hours would be more affordable, reported the BBC.

However, almost every university in the UK charges students the full amount of tuition and there is no differentiation between courses despite significantly varying contact hours and graduate salaries.

Students from low-income backgrounds are currently disproportionately affected by the current tuition fee structure in the UK.

The scrapping of maintenance grants for less wealthy students means they now have to take out a bigger repayable loan than their wealthier peers whose living costs are subsidised by their parents.

In the review, May promised to ensure all students regardless of background can access higher education, create a fair funding system, incentivise choice and competitiveness between institutions and ultimately create a skilled economy.

The review will consider “how we can give people from disadvantaged backgrounds an equal chance to succeed. That includes how disadvantaged students and learners receive maintenance support, both from government and universities and colleges”, said May.

But, she has made clear that university fees will not be abolished, saying those “who benefit directly from higher education should contribute directly towards the cost of it”, despite pressure from the Labour party.

According to May, widening access to university “is not made easier by a funding system which leaves students from the lowest-income households bearing the highest levels of debt, with many graduates left questioning the return they get for their investment”.

Price differentiation

Instead, Education Secretary Damian Hinds suggested tuition fees should reflect the value of the courses “to our society as a whole”, according to the BBC.

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening warned that this could lead to a regressive system where science degrees are more expensive than arts and humanities courses, reported Huffington Post.

“I think the other thing that really matters from my perspective is social mobility and making sure that we don’t end up with a system where young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds will feel like maybe they ought to do one of the cheaper degrees rather than doing the degree that they actually want which will really unlock their potential and future,” Greenings said.

Hinds disagreed, however. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I don’t think it’s as straightforward as just separating arts from sciences – and of course there’s great value to both arts degrees and science degrees.”

“But I think there are different considerations for courses. There is the cost to put it on, there’s the return to the individual, and there’s also the returns to our economy and to society as a whole.”

May also advocated more two-year courses during her speech and flexible learning structures so that students could choose to live at home or work alongside their degrees.

Alternative higher education

The prime minister also turned her attention to vocational and technical higher education paths alongside university.

She said there is a strong emphasis on obtaining a university degree even if it might not be the right path for certain people.

During her speech, May gave the example of a working-class boy who wants to enter the legal profession but faces more challenges by his privately educated counterpart, or a girl who wants to become a software developer but is told she must go to university rather than follow an alternative route.

There is a culture of seeing non-university higher education as “for someone else’s child”, said May, but she aims to address this stigma in her review.

However, Universities UK President and University of Liverpool Vice-Chancellor Prof Janet Beer, told The Guardian May’s plan may be problematic:

“The perception may be of academic versus technical qualifications, but the reality is very different. Universities are key to developing the skills needed by employers and students across a wide range of industries, sectors and professions.”

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