Leader - A costly business for some

The intended undergraduate fees market never took off, but it is very real for international and postgraduate students

August 8, 2013

As we now know, the higher education market envisioned by Lord Browne was stillborn when the government opted to impose a £9,000 tuition-fee cap.

The predictable rush to charge the maximum led to the introduction of a number of alternative mechanisms to force universities to compete.

In the most recent set of agreements, many of the remaining stragglers, who had been coy about charging top whack, shrugged their shoulders and gave in. Only 10 out of 120 institutions will charge maximum home fees of less than £9,000 in 2014-15.

But home undergraduate fees are not the whole picture – universities are taking full advantage of the freedom to charge what they like for overseas and postgraduate students.

This week, we publish the results of a survey of fees for the coming academic year, using data supplied by institutions to The Complete University Guide.

Seen in the round, the fees landscape is anything but homogeneous: the price of an MBA, for example, can vary by more than £30,000 – a home student at the University of Oxford will pay £41,000, compared with £6,750 at the University of Bedfordshire.

Study at Bedfordshire as an international student, meanwhile, and the same MBA course will cost you £11,250 – two-thirds more than if you had been born up the road.

Universities are competing on almost anything they can think of, including the profile of the local football team

There are similar variations at undergraduate level: an overseas student on a clinical course at King’s College London will pay £35,000 a year, for example – almost quadruple what a British student will pay.

And the fees charged to home students for taught postgraduate degrees are equally uneven, with the most expensive course setting you back more than £,000 and the cheapest costing just over £3,000 (about a third of the fee paid by undergraduates).

This, then, is the market that the government had hoped to introduce in the post-Browne era, but it is a market in which factors other than price pose considerable challenges for home postgraduates and international students at all levels.

For domestic students, meeting the cost of postgraduate education is made doubly difficult by the lack of a coherent funding model, for example (a recent survey found that only a third of the 1,000 undergraduates polled thought a postgraduate qualification would be worth the money, with one describing it as “an unaffordable luxury”).

For international students, the costs can be higher still, while the government continues to send mixed messages about the welcome they can expect (note the publication of a new strategy to sell British education overseas in the same week that mobile advertising hoardings toured city streets warning: “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest”).

And students are not alone in facing challenges – universities, so reliant on fee income, are competing not only on price but on pretty much anything else they can think of, too, including, as we report this week, the international profile of the local football team.

This might seem a bit ridiculous, but in another way it makes perfect sense: higher education and football are two of the UK’s strongest assets overseas.

And with crazy transfer fees, soaring ticket prices and a culture endangered by changing ownership, the two have more in common than might be supposed.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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