University tuition: reasonable or unfair?12 min read

Is it fair for universities to charge tuition? The short answer is no. But is it necessary? That really depends on who’s being asked.

In 2017, the UK had an average of $30,800 in loan debt per student, following the United State’s $37,172. An unsurprising number to those in education, but stark against the fact that a number of nations offer university free of charge. With Denmark, Brazil, and Germany offering free tuition, the UK’s debts warrant the wince that accompanies them.

According to UCAS, the highest fees for starting undergraduate study in 2020 are £9,250 in England. Across the UK, fees for international students are variable. In Scotland, a Scottish or EU student has no fees.

This is possible because of Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS), a Scottish Government agency which pays the tuition in lieu of the student. The 2019/2020 guide states: “If you are studying a full-time course in Scotland and you meet our eligibility conditions, we will pay your fees each year.”

So why doesn’t England have something similar?

Tuition fees in England are a confusing and long-standing controversy.

First introduced in 1998 by the Labour Party, they were a response to the cost of Higher Education swiftly growing. At first, the fees were based on the earnings of the student’s family. Following its devolution in 1999, Scotland promptly removed the fees. Wales opted to add a “means-tested maintenance grant”, which was £5,000 in 2018.

In 2004, universities were allowed to charge up to £3,000 per student by the Higher Education Act.

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The Browne Report in 2010 followed Lord Browne’s review of England’s Higher Education System. The report proposed a number of changes to the system at the time. Predominantly, there should be no limit on what universities could charge for tuition. Students would pay no tuition upfront, instead paying back the loans once their earnings reached £21,000. No interest would be charged outside the cost to government of loaning. Paid debt would be written off after 30 years instead of 25.

Additionally, changes to the university system itself were proposed. One such proposal was to set an entry requirement via UCAS points, not allowing financial support to those below the cutoff and an 80 per cent cut in the teaching grant to universities. The last proposal essentially encouraged universities to charge over £6,000 to avoid an income drop. However, the higher the tuition fee, the smaller the portion the university would actually receive of any cost over £6,000.

Charlotte Gerada, then general secretary of the LSE Students’ Union stated: “This is a dark day for meritocracy in the UK. An open market will inevitably mean that students choose which university to attend based on their ability to pay rather than their academic ability.” This sentiment was echoed across many academics and students who would see their choices made according to cost over quality.

In 2011 the cost for English students studying in England was up to £3,375. In 2012, Parliament changed the ruling, stating that any university or college will be able to charge a graduate contribution of up to £6,000. However, that was not the true tuition cap, as universities would be allowed to charge up to £9,000 if they agreed to follow stricter conditions on widening participation and fair access.

2015 saw the government backtrack on a 2012 policy to have students repay nine per cent of their earnings above £21,000, with the threshold increasing yearly in line with inflation. The decision to freeze the threshold permanently at  £21,000 was pushed through despite 95 per cent of respondents opposing to it. Moreover, this change was effectively hidden in the Autumn Statement. George Osborne purposefully reduced the attention the issue received by not addressing it in his speech.

What’s happening now?

Last July, Theresa May called for her successor to reinstate maintenance grants and reduce tuition fees. Amongst others, cutting undergraduate tuition fees to £7,500 and increasing repayment from 30 to 40 years, a move which would see many paying off debt in their 60s, her proposals held little that would truly benefit students.

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Unsurprisingly, this was not well received. Shakira Martin, then president of the National Union of Students (NUS), stated: “This announcement is too little too late, given that Theresa May’s legacy in higher education will always be the deportation of thousands of our international student friends and colleagues.”

The Conservative Party had little to say about university tuition during the December 2019 election, leading to the general assumption that fees would remain at £9,250 for UK students following their election. It’s unlikely that tuition fees will be changing for UK nationals any time soon, though not by popular opinion, as Labour pledged to remove tuition fees and reinstate maintenance grants.

What Happened to Maintenance Grants?

Maintenance grants provided to students in England were removed following the Summer Budget 2015. In their place, students would receive increased maintenance loans from the 2016/17 educational year.

This was not the first time that they were removed, first having been abolished in 1999 under the Labour government of the time. They were then re-established in 2006, only to be taken away 10 years later along with the special support grant for students over 60, in favour of loans. The vote to abandon this policy was lost 292 to 306.

Ex-director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, Nick Hillman, stated: “In the past, they had about £7,500, in future, they will have £8,200. But it will all be paid back if they get a well-paid job, whereas in the past around £3,000 or so did not have to be paid back” for students who would need to undertake the loan. While many policymakers heralded the change, Labours cited concern over the impact on those from low-income backgrounds.

It was also not a popular decision amongst students or student organisations. The NUS objected with the concern that students would be seeing a “lifetime of debt”. General secretary of the University College Union at the time, Sally Hunt stated: “Cost does matter and there is a very real danger that raising tuition fees combined with the ending of maintenance grants will damage progress made by widening participation initiatives”.

When Theresa May left office last year, her call to reinstate the grant was one that students had been making since the moment it was taken away and one she had promptly ignored, a trend the current government seem content on continuing.

Tim Bradshaw, head of the Russell Group in 2018 stated that a reintroduction of the grants could aid diversity in higher education and cause a “substantial difference” to those concerned about debt. 2018 UCAS figures showed that a quarter of the Russell Group universities saw a decrease in admittance of deprived school leavers since 2016.

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The Impact on Student Life

Debbie Lisle, a lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast said: “The marketisation of higher education is changing the whole culture of what it means to be at university.” Additionally noting that administrators refer to students as “clients”. This has shifted the focus from the quality of education to how marketable the university may be to prospective students. A fact which has undoubtedly impacted the quality of service. A 2017 survey found that 37 per cent of students found their degree to be “poor value” as opposed to “good value” at 32 per cent. This was the first time poor value had overtaken good.

A counsellor at a Russell Group university told The Guardian: “We see a lot of students who don’t feel able to go out because they’re too busy working. They don’t feel it’s valid to have fun”. University in the UK has long been associated with partying and long nights out for some, a trend which recent years have shown a decline. From 2005 to 2013, the number of students who don’t drink alcohol increased by 40 per cent. Whether a byproduct in this change in behaviour or not, the university experience has undergone a marked change.

Amy Lees, a third-year at the University of Sheffield in 2017, talking about her university, said: “I definitely [felt like] a consumer. I do feel it’s a business and you are buying their goods.” This has resulted in a shift in student thinking, a growing anxiety over the end result: one’s score. Paula Cocozza, a writer for The Guardian, noted: “students find it hard to take risks in their thinking because they feel they have already taken a risk – and the risk is the debt.”

The growing strain of maintaining perfect scores to avoid risking the degree that is the cause of future years of debt causes a clear toll. A 2015 NUS survey found that 78 per cent of students had “experienced mental health issues in the previous year”. Though this could be caused by any number of reasons, when coupled with the fact that many feel finances are a major concern in student life, it’s highly likely that tuition contributes to such a high value. When asked to identify the main cause of stress in university life by a 2017 survey, 15 per cent replied with managing finances, the same amount of responses for exams, falling second only to coursework at 18 per cent. Additionally, a 2016 survey conducted by the NUS on behalf of Future Finance, a private loan company, found that 63 per cent of students worry about their finances “all the time or very often”.

Moreover, the summer break lauded by popular culture as a time of relaxation or partying has become anything but.

Another survey, conducted by The Big Choice Group, had similarly concerning results. 79 per cent of students said that, compared to previous generations, they are under more pressure than ever to spend their prized break in employment. CEO of Future Finance, Brian Norton said of this change: “It’s very worrying so many students could lose out on their entire summer, a period traditionally associated with play and winding down after a tough academic year, because of the cost pressures they now feel”.

This survey came alongside the government’s removal of maintenance grants.

Similar Issues, Different Countries

The United States is part of the reason higher education is almost synonymous with debt due to soaring tuition fees that take decades to pay off.

Though tuition fees existed in the states prior to 1977, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics did not begin tracking them until then. A degree costing $20,000 in 1977 would cost over $300,000 today. Though commonly brushed off as being caused by inflation, the jump in cost is much higher than it would be if caused by the inflation of the US Dollar. The average inflation of the US dollar during these years is 3.43 per cent, meaning the cost of the same degree should be just above $85,000 in 2020. However, the inflation in college tuition has been almost twice as high at 6.52 per cent causing US tuition fees in 2020 to be 1,410.83 per cent higher than in 1977.


For the 2019-2020 year, the average cost of tuition fees for private colleges was $41,426 and $11,260 for state residents at state schools. According to the Social Security Administration, the average wage in 2018 was $48,251.57.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the government’s solution to this. Providing both needs-based and non-needs based aid to students to help cover the fees, this aid typically comes in the form of subsidised loans. This means that the government will cover the interest rate until sixth months after graduation, after which payments will need to be made until the loan is paid off in full, regardless of the length of time. As of 2020, these loans could range from $5,500 to $12,500. Unsubsidized loans up to $31,000 are also available during undergraduate study.

It is no surprise then that at the end of March in 2019, the Pew Research Center found that $1.5 trillion was owed in student debt and 34 per cent of adults aged 18-29 had student debt, rising to 49 per cent amongst those with a bachelors degree or higher qualification. 36 per cent between 25 to 39 with at least a bachelor’s degree feel ”that the lifetime financial costs of their degree outweigh the benefits”.

Partly why this is happening is because the federal loans are paid upfront, regardless of whether the student graduates or defaults on the loan. That, in turn, reduces universities incentive to control costs associated with them, including tuition.

Another issue is the college system itself. While seemingly homogenous, it’s actually comprised of three different factions: public colleges, private non-profit institutions, and for-profit colleges. Public colleges have resorted to enrolling more out of state students (who pay a higher fee) along with international students to make up the difference between costs and government funding. In order to recruit said higher-paying students universities invest in swaths of marketing staff, The Atlantic stated: “We can say that U.S. colleges spend more on nonteaching staff than on teachers”.

Likely the most prominent reason for the prices is a lack of control over price increases. “Universities extract money from students because they can,” said Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. “It’s the inevitable outcome of an unregulated fee structure.”

Unlike the United States, the UK has a regulated structure, with the government imposing limits on the cost of tuition. However, even with these limits in place, universities in the UK is still accompanied by a price tag too high for many.

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So is it fair?

According to a 2017 study, the poorest 40 per cent of students will be in debt by £57,000. The average debt per student stood at just over £50,000, more than double what it would have been in 2011 where tuition capped at £3,375. 77 per cent of those taking out loans at the time would have had a portion or all of their loans paid off by the government, “because graduates will not earn enough to repay their loans within that time”.

Most jobs in specialised fields are incredibly competitive, requiring a degree as well as proof of other skills outside of it. This means university isn’t really a choice, as, without an incredibly affluent background, years of debt are essentially guaranteed for UK students, not to mention those from abroad who cannot access the same loans. Scotland, Germany, and numerous other countries around the world provide free higher education, so it’s disconcerting to see the UK raise tuition over the past 10 years as opposed to removing it. University tuition, amongst other reason, contributes to higher education acting as a socioeconomic barrier between those who can afford it or take on the debt, and those who can’t. 

Alexandra Clay


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