Average overseas fee for UK master’s rises by almost £1K

Fees are likely to have been set before the Covid-19 crisis, but the change could help university finances if student numbers fall  

August 13, 2020
People looking up at pinned mementos left on the ceiling.
Source: Reuters

Average UK tuition fees for master’s students from outside the European Union have seen their largest increase in several years despite the pandemic, according to the latest edition of an annual survey.

Figures from the Complete University Guide’s annual survey of fees in UK universities show that an overseas student taking a classroom-based taught postgraduate course in 2020-21 will be charged an average of £16,081, up almost £1,000 from the year before.

The 6.5 per cent increase is more than double the uplift seen last year, and also higher than previous years, when increases have tended to be between 4 and 4.5 per cent. Laboratory-based master’s courses also rose by 6.4 per cent to an average of £18,613, again a bigger increase than in previous years.

Fees on MBA courses for overseas students were also up by more than 6 per cent, although they have tended to fluctuate more over the past few years, with a 1.9 per cent uplift in 2019-20 and a 6.7 per cent increase in 2018-19.

Such increases may come as a surprise to some overseas students starting courses this autumn, given the fact that some tuition may still be online. Some observers have suggested that universities should be lowering fee levels because of the shift away from face-to-face teaching as a result of the pandemic.  

Potentially, a rise in overseas fees could help to mitigate any financial hit from a drop-off in demand from overseas students caused by the pandemic.

However, Times Higher Education understands that this is unlikely to have been a general reason behind the fee hikes as most overseas fees would have been advertised before the pandemic, making it difficult to adjust them this spring.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the signs before the pandemic were that demand from overseas students would hold up even when fees rose.

But she said a substantial hike in fees this autumn may mean universities would feel an obligation to provide as much face-to-face teaching as it was safe to offer, as well as focusing on online tuition quality.

“The online teaching that universities have been able to offer in the last few months had to be pulled together very quickly and they’ve got this time now to reflect on what has worked well,” she added.

Elsewhere, the CUG survey showed fees for classroom-based master’s courses taken by UK and EU students were also up by almost 6 per cent, to an average of about £8,400, but this represented the smallest increase since 2017-18. Lab-based master’s courses are up by more, now reaching almost £9,650 after a 9 per cent rise.

Gillian Houston, vice-chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said it was difficult to pinpoint the factors behind all the fee changes, and averages could often be skewed by premium courses at some institutions.

However, she said for UK students looking to take master’s courses, some “universities may be keeping fees as low as possible, anticipating that some first degree graduates…will be encouraged to enter a postgraduate degree (with a loan) straight away” owing to the economic crisis.

There was also the important change to EU fees coming in next year to consider, she said, when students from the bloc will face the same fee levels as overseas students and lose access to UK government loans.

“At our annual conference [held online in July], it was anticipated that UK PGT programmes could be popular with EU applicants for 2020-21, given they will have to pay overseas fees from 2021-22 onwards,” Dr Houston said, adding that this would mean there was a good chance universities had taken this into account when setting fees.


Full fees survey table for 2020-21

InstitutionPGT home/EU classroom (£s)PGT home/EU lab (£s)PGT overseas classroom (£s)PGT overseas lab (£s)MBA home/EU (£s)MBA overseas (£s)
Source: Complete University Guide
Notes: All fees relate to full-time fees per year (unless otherwise stated). † Figures are from 2019-20. ‡ MBA part-time or modular fee. ‡‡ 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.

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Reader's comments (2)

The Knowledge Partnership has been publishing our Tuition Fees Benchmarking Tool since 2012 so it is really interesting to compare the results from the survey with the published fees. TKP collect the published fees (both International and UK/EU), for all university courses in the UK at both undergraduate and postgraduate taught level and as such can provide a more accurate view of the trends in fees. Examining the data indicates that International fees for classroom and lab based courses have increased by around 5% each year since 2017/18, not just in 2018/19 or 2020/21. The percentage increase figures reported in the article are different to the increases we see using the data in the Fees Benchmarking Tool. For classroom based courses international fees increased by 5.1% in 2017/18, 4.8% in 2018/19 and 4.9% in 2020/21. A similar increase can be seen in lab based courses: 5.2% in 2017/18, 4.3% in 2018/19 and 4.6% in 2020/21. This indicates that fees at universities have not increased in 2020/21 by any more than in previous years. For MBAs the picture is slightly more complicated. Just over a third of universities (36%) offering an MBA charge the same fee to both International and UK/EU students. Using the benchmarking tool we can see a steady increase in MBA fees, that, in recent years, is broadly in line with the increase in fees for classroom and lab based programmes. (For international fees: 2.5% 2017/18, 4.6% in 2018/19 and 5.0% in 2020/21). The final thoughts we have are around the timing for fees setting. As the article points out the fees for 2020/21 would have been decided before the covid-19 pandemic hit the UK. In our experience most universities publish their fees between September and January for the following academic year, which means the decision making process around this happens much earlier in Spring, so the fees for 2020/21 would have been set in 2019, up to a year before the pandemic when there was no indication that the 2020/21 academic year would be any different to 2019/20. The fees setting process for 2021/22 will have been taking place during lockdown so it will be interesting to see whether or not universities choose to increase fees by more than inflation or to hold or decrease their fees as THE are reporting is happening in the US.