Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Pressure Gauges

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Pressure Gauges

Article excerpt

A survey of tuition fees for 2014-15 reveals rising fees for international students. If the cap on undergraduate fees is lifted, as some vice-chancellors hope, will they, too, surge upwards? David Matthews discusses the possible scenarios in an uncapped market

You could think of the £9,000 cap on undergraduate tuition fees in England as a dam holding back universities from charging UK undergraduates even larger amounts. If you did, you would see a structure that is coming under more pressure than ever before - and some vice-chancellors are hoping that it will burst before long.

Figures published last month by the Office for Fair Access confirm that English universities charging less than £9,000 a year for an undergraduate degree course have become an exception to the norm, as more and more universities bump up against the ceiling.

There is no limit, however, on the amount that universities are allowed to charge international students, and a survey of tuition fees for the coming academic year, compiled by The Complete University Guide and published this week by Times Higher Education, shows that fees for overseas students have risen by inflation-busting amounts.

If, after the general election in May next year, the cap on undergraduate fees is removed and the floodgates open, what might be the result? Is it likely that fees for UK undergraduates would surge upwards, as they have for international students?

Since the £9,000 cap on undergraduate fees was set for 2012-13, it has remained unchanged while inflation has nibbled away at its value. Last year, Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, broke cover and argued that fees should better reflect the cost of educating an undergraduate at the university, which he claimed to be £16,000 a year.

In June this year, Sir Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, was even more explicit, calling for completely uncapped fees. And in the same month, Michael Thorne, who leads Anglia Ruskin University, said that some universities would be "completely stuffed" financially in just three years if fees remain frozen at £9,000.

Meanwhile, universities have been raising fees in those other areas where they have freedom to do so. According to the 2014 survey results, on average, universities have increased their "typical" fee for overseas undergraduate classroom-based subjects by 4.8 per cent on the previous year (among universities providing comparable data in the 2013 and 2014 surveys), with an average fee of £11,987. In the lab, fees are up by an average of 4.6 per cent to £13,774.

At postgraduate level, international students are also being charged more: on average 5.5 per cent extra for classroom subjects and for those studied in the laboratory. Across the sector, the average typical fee for these course types was £12,390 and £14,274, respectively.

The priciest course in our survey is Oxford's MBA at £42,640. Oxford declined to comment, but in previous years the university's Saïd Business School has argued that the sum is not excessive compared with other MBA programmes at elite universities in the US and Europe. Excluding medical school fees, the most expensive courses were generally those geared towards a career in business or finance. The average annual price of an MBA for an international student was £17,413, substantially higher than the average for other classroom-based postgraduate courses.

All this might seem to suggest that in a "true", uncapped market, fees for home undergraduates would balloon. But data from home postgraduate fees, which are not subject to a cap, present a different picture.

For these courses, in 2014-15, average annual tuition was £5,680 - much lower than the typical undergraduate fee. The average fee increase for home postgraduate students was 1.2 per cent, a rise that is below the rate of inflation (which in June this year was 2. …

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