Major questions still hang in the air over UK higher education following the review of post-18 education in England led by Philip Augar, not least whether the panel’s main recommendations will ever be implemented (a point brought even more sharply into focus with the reappointment of Jo Johnson as universities minister).
But if, as the review puts forward, the cap on undergraduate tuition were lowered to £7,500, it would mark a watershed in the fees landscape in one respect: for the first time in several years the annual cost of a master’s would bypass bachelor’s fees at many universities.
According to the 2019-20 survey of tuition fees at UK universities compiled by the Complete University Guide, more than half will charge more than £7,500 next year for a classroom-based master’s course. For lab-based subjects, the figure is almost 70 per cent.
The shift reflects the continuation of a trend in recent years for taught master’s fees for domestic students (and until Brexit is finally – or ever – sorted, European Union students too) rising at a much faster rate than overseas fees or MBAs.
On average, a classroom-based master’s will almost top £8,000 for a domestic student in 2019-20 (up 6.8 per cent on 2018-19) and hit closer to £9,000 for a lab-based course (up 8 per cent). Since 2015-16, the classroom-based master’s fee has gone up by more than a third.
In contrast, average overseas fees are up by about 3 per cent for a taught master’s this year and about 4 per cent for an undergraduate degree, while MBAs – typically the steepest fees of all – have risen by under 2 per cent for all students. Since 2015-16, the increases in these categories have been about half of those for home/EU taught postgraduates.
If these rises do eventually result in master’s fees surpassing the annual undergraduate fee, many commentators may argue that it is simply a rebalancing that was long overdue. When home/EU undergraduate fees almost tripled to £9,000 in 2012, many master’s courses were still available for about £4,000, a price tag that did not necessarily reflect the actual cost of provision.
A turning point was the introduction from 2016-17 of loans intended to cover fees and living costs for taught postgraduates, which reversed declining demand for courses among domestic students. But it has also allowed universities to increase fees closer to a level that covers costs (or arguably past this point in some cases).
Meanwhile, extra top-up funding for master’s courses already appears to be falling away. Although the Office for Students in England still funds high-cost subjects for postgraduates and undergraduates, a specific targeted allocation for taught postgraduate education has been recently reduced. In its funding guide for 2019-20, the OfS said that the key reason for reducing this allocation from £25 million to £8 million was the fact that master’s loans were now available.
So if Augar’s recommendation on undergraduate fees comes to pass – and universities are not fully reimbursed with direct funding to counter that loss of income – does it leave master’s fees as a prime candidate for further increases?
Alan Palmer, head of policy and research at the MillionPlus group of newer universities, said that the undergraduate fee cap struggling to keep pace with inflation since 2012 had already showed institutions using “the opportunity of the unregulated market as part of their income strategy”.
“This would be a logical impact of a fee cap coming down to £7,500 if the government didn’t pledge additional funding to universities to maintain investment in the student experience,” he said.
“It is going to lead universities to look at where they can raise income in order to maintain their UK and international competitiveness, bearing in mind they are potentially about to lose a really important market if EU students no longer receive entitlement to [loan] support and face new entry barriers.”
The key question is whether, without any regulation, there is a natural ceiling to master’s fees.
Michelle Morgan, associate dean for the student experience at Bournemouth University and a member of the UK Council for Graduate Education executive committee, said that the sector would push master’s fees as far as it thought the “market can cope with it”.
But she warned that this created major risks that a key age group for master’s courses – those aged 21 to 24 – would start turning away from postgraduate education altogether, especially if Augar-inspired policy changes led to graduates paying back undergraduate fees for longer.
“Changes in the undergraduate loan scheme and putting up [master’s] fees is likely to reduce access and reduce widening participation because it becomes unaffordable for many, especially if the fee is higher than the loan,” said Dr Morgan, who pointed out that postgraduate debt was paid back in addition to undergraduate loans.
“I think if fees continue to rise, we will find ourselves back to 2011-2016 when domestic participation plummeted and [England’s regulator] introduced…schemes to turn the crisis around.”
Dr Morgan added that in her view the long-term sustainability of master’s study depended on moving away from master’s qualifications being a “means to a job, which is often [the way it is] marketed by universities”. Instead, it should be made easier to study for postgraduate qualifications in smaller chunks after starting a career, she said.
Without any major structural changes, anyone hoping for an end to price increases at master’s level may have to look at the other fee data in detail for signs that a natural price ceiling does eventually kick in.
For instance, MBAs have by far the highest average fees for a postgraduate taught course but did see the lowest increases this year, suggesting competition from abroad may act as a brake.
Comparing institutions in three university groups – the Russell Group, University Alliance and MillionPlus – also reveals differing approaches to fee increases in the past year.
For instance, Russell Group universities put up overseas fees for undergraduates studying classroom-based subjects by 8 per cent on average, but only by 3 or 4 per cent for postgraduate taught courses (whether for home or overseas students).
University Alliance institutions, meanwhile, had an 8 per cent rise in the average fee charged to home/EU taught postgraduates, but much lower for overseas students. And MillionPlus universities had a higher increase on average for overseas master’s students.
With overseas fees there are factors beyond pure demand to consider, such as the visa regime for overseas students in recent years arguably being more favourable to Russell Group institutions.
But Mr Palmer said that it still was not possible for institutions to simply charge whatever they liked to overseas students as a way of bringing in extra income.
“International students are incredibly mobile and have a range of options so I cannot see that it would be possible for a university to think that they could just whack the prices up, because a potential student could just turn round and say ‘OK, I’m off to Canada or Australia’.”
Likewise, some universities may not be able to hike domestic master’s fees beyond a certain point if they think that it will stop prospective students from applying.
“You have definitely got some clear blue water opening up now” between different types of universities on master’s fees, said Paul Wakeling, head of the department of education at the University of York.
“There are people out there for whom [a high fee] is no object. But there will be others who are much more price-sensitive.”
Full fees survey table for 2019-20
Source: Complete University Guide
Notes: All fees relate to full-time fees per year (unless otherwise stated). † Figures are from 2018–19. ‡ MBA part-time or modular fee. ∫ Northern Ireland/EU fee. †† in collaboration with the University of Law. •• May be a course fee. A “–” indicates N/A or that no data were supplied.
Where the numbers come from
Data are based on a survey conducted by the Complete University Guide. The survey results have been published annually since 2002, when Mike Reddin first presented them.
Institutions were asked to provide a typical fee, although some chose to provide a range. Figures are for guidance only. Fees for specific courses may vary from those shown. The averages published in the article exclude institutions that provided a range.
Print headline: Will master’s fees overtake bachelor’s?