A Head Master Writes - The Sunday Times blog

8th February 2015

University challenge: why do most undergraduates pay the same fee?

This is the time of year when universities loom large in the lives of most upper sixth formers. Some already have all five offers; others fewer, but including their preferred university; others again have received the news that the university they most wanted has turned them down. In almost all cases, the offers received will include some stretching ones, and boys and girls will be inwardly worrying that they may never achieve the grades.

With hard work, and clear focus on the requirements of each paper they need to sit, almost all of them will be off to good universities in the autumn – the trials of A level and IB behind them. But what then?

The phased removal of the cap on the number of places popular universities can offer has seen good universities expand inexorably over the last few years. Universities are now inviting more students than ever before into lecture rooms, sporting facilities and accommodation that must in some places be creaking at the seams. Right now, no one is complaining, because pupils, parents and teachers all breathe a huge sigh of relief every time another offer comes in from a sought-after Russell Group university.

The current government has tackled many more apparently intractable problem areas in UK life than it is given credit for, not least in our schools and examination regimes. It made a brave decision to raise university fees, too, at a time when vice chancellors were very clear that universities could not possibly continue to survive under the old fee structure. However, there are now grave doubts that the reformed fee system is really going to work. Universities are rushing to expand – but what if the additional tuition fees turn out to be fools’ gold? And what if undergraduates begin to question their fundamental fairness?

Statistics obtained last month show that within 30 years, the amount of student bad debt – to be paid for by the tax payer – will be anything between £8bn- £14bn per annum in today’s terms. These are enormous figures, equivalent at worst to one per cent of GDP. There are many problems with the current fee regime – but the worst is that the government appears to have grossly over-estimated the number of graduates who will pay back their loans. At the end of last year, an independent Higher Education Commission revealed that three-quarters of students would be unable to do so.

There are other stark flaws in the system, such as the fact vast numbers of EU students never pay back their loans at all, and of course the bitter anomaly whereby Scottish, Welsh and all EU citizens pay no fee to attend a Scottish university, whereas English undergraduates alone must pay the full £9000 per annum. Perhaps the only comfort for them is that in many cases their degree will apparently lead to such low-level employment they will never have to pay back the debt in any case.

Because that is the other painful awakening that awaits too many of today’s eager sixth formers. Whoever foots the bill for each undergraduate’s university degree – student or taxpayer – how much is it actually worth in the cold light of the workplace? Not as much as we all thought, it seems.

Shocking new figures show that a third of graduates are failing to find graduate-level employment – five years after they have graduated. With 34% of graduates in lower-level employment, this is the worst figure in more than ten years. Current graduates are those whose old-style loans are far less burdensome. But what if this statistic stays the same, or even gets worse, for the tens of thousands of graduates leaving university each year from this summer with debts of over £50,000 around their necks?

Four years ago, ministers challenged UK universities to be more open about how they spent the fees they levied on undergraduates. After all, quite which market forces apply when an arts undergraduate receiving minimal contact time and requiring no specialist facilities other than a lecture room is paying the same fee as a medic or engineer? The only one I can think of is that the former is far more likely to end up unemployed.

Needless to say, universities remain tight-lipped as to why almost all degree courses at all universities cost exactly the same. It is, however, an open secret that humanities students subsidise those pursuing science, medicine and suchlike, whilst also helping to pay for much-needed buildings and repairs.

The Higher Education Policy Institute recently invited leading English universities to explain the costs within their £9000 degrees. All refused. When 75% of graduates find themselves in non-graduate employment, with a vast loan to pay off, and when tax payers find they are footing the bill, our universities may have to be a little more forthcoming.

Andrew Halls

Head Master
King’s College School, Wimbledon

Andrew Halls
Head Master

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