Average classroom master’s fee jumps £1,200 for UK students

Rise could prompt concerns about sustainability of current postgraduate loans system

August 10, 2021
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Average fees for UK students taking classroom-based master’s courses have jumped by 15 per cent in one year, raising concerns that universities could be exploiting extra demand for postgraduate education created by the pandemic.

According to an annual survey of undergraduate and postgraduate fees at UK universities by the Complete University Guide, the average classroom-based postgraduate taught course will cost almost £9,500 in 2021-22.

This is about £1,200 more than the year before and more than £3,500 higher than six years ago, before government loans for postgraduates were introduced in England to cover tuition fee and living costs for master’s courses.

A number of observers believe the introduction of loans has allowed institutions to raise postgraduate taught fees to a level that properly reflects the costs of providing such courses.

However, a report from the Sutton Trust published earlier this year warned that although the loans have had positive benefits, such as helping to increase participation at master’s level for disadvantaged students, they were starting to be outstripped by rising fees.

Michelle Morgan, dean of students at the University of East London and an elected member of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said universities had “long argued” that postgraduate fees did not fully cover the cost of provision.

Therefore, fees on taught courses had been creeping up over the past few years, something that had “in part been justified because, if the undergraduate fee per year is £9,250, why should an advanced course be less a year?”

However, she said, financial difficulties and increased costs for universities resulting from the pandemic might have contributed to the rise this year, and it did also prompt questions about how student demand was affecting pricing.

This included whether an anticipated increase in demand was being seen as an opportunity “to increase fees, especially among certain groups” such as domestic students.

She added that because of the job uncertainties caused by the Covid crisis, UK domestic students might also be “deciding to go on to [postgraduate] study because they have been offered a hefty alumni discount to stay on”.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said such discounts had to be borne in mind when looking at fees because they meant that the actual cost of courses was lower than the “sticker price” fee.

But he warned that there was a risk that the government could start paying close attention to postgraduate fees if it saw evidence that the loan – which is also supposed to cover living costs – was being eaten up by rising prices.

“If universities were thought to be overpricing their postgraduate courses for home students, they need to be a little bit careful because policymakers will start considering imposing the sorts of fee caps that they impose on undergraduate courses,” Mr Hillman said.

Meanwhile, other evidence in the fees data that suggests that universities might be paying close attention to demand comes in the changes to the cost of postgraduate taught courses for overseas students.

The cost of a classroom-based master’s course for such students has risen much less steeply, by 4.6 per cent to about £16,700, while the average MBA fee for overseas students is up only 1.7 per cent.

Such fees are now faced by students from the European Union, who no longer automatically have access to the same fees and loans as UK learners, except where universities have made special arrangements to keep prices in line with those for domestic students.

Concerns about lower demand from the EU, coupled with travel uncertainties caused by the pandemic, could therefore be potential explanations for such lower rises.



Print headline: Taught master’s fee leaps £1,200 for UK students

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