Should UK tuition fees be raised to cover the rising costs of education?



Recently, University of Oxford vice- chancellor Andrew Hamilton noted that the provision of an Oxford education costs roughly £16,000 per year per student, a budget shortfall of £7,000 per student which results in a £70 million shortfall of teaching income per year. At our own university, the cost per student is roughly £12,000, the shortfall is exacerbated by the great number of Scottish and EU students that attend the university with little to no fees.

As individuals, university graduates can expect to earn between 20 and 100 per cent more by the middle of their working lives than non-graduates, and as members of the public, the social benefits of a broad-based, well-educated populace are innumerable. As a society, the United Kingdom has both an ethical duty to its citizens and a pragmatic obligation to itself to ensure that its investment in universities is sufficient to maintain the high standards of its academic reputation. It is troubling that the current scheme regarding university fees is insufficient to provide means for the maintenance and expansion of universities.

As it currently stands, the fees paid by UK students – capped at £9,000 – do not manage to cover the actual costs of educating students at certain universities. According to the director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities: “Our leading institutions cannot continue to be internationally competitive, provide a first-rate teaching experience and offer generous support to disadvantaged students without access to increased funding.”

In the immediate, the capped £9,000 fee for higher education is already presenting material challenges to British universities. The recent strike by our staff and three teaching unions are testament to the fact that the universities are unable to satisfactorily match pay with increasing living costs, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Universities are looking for alternative sources of income, tapping heavily into the unregulated market of international students and relying on philanthropic donations. Our own university’s fundraising efforts, despite having the third highest participation rate in the UK and having broken records for alumni participation, have garnered little, falling £60 million short of our fundraising goal.

The current scheme and price cap is simply unsustainable. The best solution is to do away with the price cap all together and let the universities determine their own fees. This would allow greater flexibility for institutions to meet their own financial needs. It makes little sense to determine a universal charge for every university; every university is unique and not every one has Oxford-level costs.

Further, tuition fees should be universal for all students, with the only exception being for financial aid; universities in Scotland should stop nation-testing and start means-testing. Having a fee that adequately covers costs would have the added benefit of allowing the University to help those who are qualified but financially unable to attend. The reality of the price cap is that universities will charge the maximum whenever possible to help close their costs; in light of that, it is ludicrous that a wealthy student from the EU pays near nothing while some English families struggle to pay £9,000 a year.

Ultimately, in order to both maintain and and advance the standing of British universities in the age of austerity, taking these steps will address the fiscal realities of higher education and, in doing so, allow universities to tackle their challenges head-on.

Thomas Quarton



Professors and officials from several of the UK’s leading universities have urged the government to raise the cap on tuition fees. They say such an in- crease is necessary to meet the rising costs of providing higher education. Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and president of Universities UK (UUK) – a representative group that published a report on the financial future of universities earlier this month – has called the £9,000 figure “not sustainable”. Snowden was one of three vice-chancellors to call for a rise.

Their argument is reasonable: in the next two decades the number of university students could increase by nearly 100,000. Even at the current matriculation levels there is not enough money to sustain UK institutions. The report published by UUK noted that the recent tuition hikes arrived on the back of cuts in government spending, both a result of austerity and an at- tempt to get ahead in an increasingly competitive international education market.

At the moment, the UK lags behind many other nations in funding for even its top institutions. The University of Oxford currently operates with a funding gap of £70 million. Without further funding, universities such as Oxford will begin to fall further behind other institutions.

While this argument justifies the economics of a tuition rise, it says nothing of the politics of education or the function it serves in the UK. It ignores the current economic climate, which finds most middle- and nearly all lower-class students strapped with burdensome student debt and growing financial pressure; many forget that it was only last year that the tuition cap was tripled to its current level.

Raising the cost of higher education would minimise the demographic that could plausibly pursue it. The ultimate goal of higher education is not the profit of the institution but the profit of society.

Education should thus be available to as many people as possible at the cheapest price. I therefore propose that tuition fees should remain capped. As a spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills phrased it, educational policy should “… ensure that going to university remains affordable for students and it is based on their ability, not their ability to pay.” This is not a “should” but a must – in order for the UK’s next generation to succeed, university attendance should remain merit-, not money-, based.

UUK has also reported that universities are already looking at sources for funding other than tuition and the government. This should continue: UK universities may find inspiration by casting a glance at their international competitors. In the US there is a culture of endowments, or donation- based funds that allow universities to garner considerable amounts of money from philanthropists and alumni. This system may or may not be ably fostered in the UK.

The financial desperation of universities in the UK is a reality. But tuition increases would simply push this desperation back onto students themselves and in doing so limit the number of those that could achieve higher education. This counteracts the role of education in first place. Opportunities for the educated have never been so high, and the opportunity for a higher education must match that.

Jake Jose


  1. Let me explain why the ‘cost’ of university tuition for arts students is nowhere near the £9000/year mark.

    A sub-honours arts student at St Andrews on £9000/year effectively pays £1500 a module,

    When I last worked as a tutor here (spring-summer 2013, so very recently), I got paid about £50 per student to tutor them for a module (which consisted of 10 tutorials and marking 3 essays each, plus e-mail contact, essay advice etc.)

    Lecturers (if they were employed on a freelance basis) get about £60 a lecture, and there are around 30 lectures per module per semester, so that works out at around £1800. We’ll round that to £2000 to cover the costs of hand outs etc. For a module of around 100 (not particularly large), the cost of lectures is around £20/head.

    We’ll call it £100 a head per module for rooms, lighting, etc, which is a gross exaggeration – for a smallish module of 100 students that equates to a total of £10,000, and you could do it all in privately rented halls for much less, and most tutorials are in staff’s offices which they’d have anyway, but we’ll let it pass.

    That leaves you over £1300. And rather than having access to a library, you could just buy every single book you needed for the module for much less than that, and then sell the books at the end, if you wanted, and get about 30% back.

    There is absolutely no way on earth that running an arts degree costs £9000 a year.

    Some money gets creamed off to subsidise societies, sports clubs, student support etc, and some needs to go on paying for administration. But realistically this should not run to thousands of pounds a year (or if it does, something is seriously wrong).

    UK universities have staggeringly high levels of non-teaching staff. According to this week’s Economist, UK universities have 13 students per non-teaching member of staff compared to a ratio of 78:1 in Greece (article here: – it is rather depressing to note just how efficient Greek university bureaucracy is compared to their British equivalents. It is unreasonable to expect students to fork out much higher fees in part because universities run excessively bloated administrations.

    I am not a fanatic on fees. I realise there is no such thing as free education. It has to be paid for, either from taxes or through fees or through a mixture of the two. I realise this, and am happy for students to pay the bulk (if not all) of their fees.

    From my point of view, the biggest problems are a lack of transparency and the uniformity of fees.

    As I hope I’ve demonstrated most arts modules could run for well under £1500 a head. Most science courses couldn’t (your need more staff, more expensive kit, etc). A good illustration is that the fees for my arts PhD are around £3000 a year, whilst my brother’s science PhD at a leading English university has fees of over over £25,000. But it is hardly fair on the arts students to make them pay more to subsidise people following more financially rewarding degrees.

    Universities could run arts degrees for around £3000/year without a problem. Huge amounts go to subsidise medicine and science students who then go on to have better chances of higher earnings. I personally think that this is very unfair.

    I would personally be happy for universities to charge whatever fees they wanted (the money has to come from somewhere, after all), but with all fees being accompanied with a fully itemised invoice, each student only paying towards the costs of their own course, and having the option to opt out of paying for all the non-academic costs (so if you don’t want to be in societies or have access to student support, you can opt out of paying for the Union, if you’re not religious you can opt out of paying for the chaplaincy, etc).

    Only through full disclosure of what money goes on can you have fair fee structures. I think most people are happy to pay for things which are priced fairly, and would be like to know that from their fees, £X have gone to pay their tutors, and £Y has gone to the library, etc.

    Just making absurd statements like “it costs £16,000 to run a degree!” without itemising what that covers doesn’t help anyone, and does not help inform the debate. Degrees only cost that much if you price-gouge students at every opportunity, and don’t tell them where the money goes.

  2. In reference to the financial question, I think the bigger issue is that we are asking universities to do two major things – carry out research and teach people. We have to decide which is more important. Students currently subsidise research even though they get little direct benefit from it.

    If you focussed universities on teaching (which is where I actually think the focus should lie), the costs would plummet, as my analogy in the above post spelled out. Carrying out research, especially research in sciences and medicine, is ruinously expensive (though generally the fruits of scientific research is much more marketable than that of most arts subjects).

    If universities focussed on teaching above all else, then the running costs per head would reduce to less than that of running A level courses in schools, due to the much lower staffing levels.

    The library spends around £5,500,000 a year, but that’s only a bit over £700 per student per year, so in effect is under £150 per module at sub-honours, and under £200 per module for honours.

    The teaching costs (as in the wages to the tutors and lecturers) per module for sub-honours students is under £100 per student.

    A bare bones arts degree course where nearly 100% of the fees went on teaching and the library could be run at a profit for under £3000 a year.

    The universities are in a financial mess because they employ far too many bureaucrats, pay the senior staff many times more than they should, and divert too many resources away from ‘core’ areas, which should always, always, always be teaching, with research a distant second, and all the other stuff purely optional.


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