Fees charged by United Kingdom universities for foreign students undertaking postgraduate courses tend to be higher than those of the UK's main competitors in Asia, according to an international study commissioned by Australia's federal department of education.
In the first ever investigation into postgraduate courses offered by universities in the UK, United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the Australian researchers compiled data about fees, course length, assessment and cost-of-living expenses, along with other factors such as the cost of travel to each country.
The investigation looked at fees for courses in the seven main fields of study: arts, business, education, engineering, medicine, nursing, science - at both masters and PhD levels - and MBA programmes.
It found the median annual fee charged by British universities for arts, education and business was higher than that of institutions in the other countries (except for private US institutions), and was second highest in science and engineering.
Only New Zealand, with a fee of US$15,402 a year, exceeded the cost of an MBA in the UK ($10,710). A PhD in medicine in the UK cost foreign students $21,515 - almost double the charge in Australia and four times that in Canada.
The average fee to undertake a master of arts in the UK was $8,780, compared with $8,082 in American public universities and $7,844 in Australia. A masters degree in nursing cost $9,492 in the UK but only $5,171 in Canada and $8,082 in the US. An MSc cost $11,644 in Britain, $9,060 in New Zealand and $8,060 in America.
The British survey covered 60 universities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and included Oxford and Cambridge universities as well as 15 former polytechnics and the University of Buckingham.
Although fees in countries such as the UK and Australia tend to vary markedly between institutions and courses, the report says that in each field of study, fees were sorted into a range and the median identified. All comparisons were then made on the basis of the median fee and a range that covered 80 per cent of the fees.
Fees in Canada were so diverse that medians and fee ranges could not provide useful data, the report says. To obtain useful comparisons, Ontario was chosen where 38 per cent of foreign students are based.
The report says the process of collecting information ensured that in most cases all compulsory charges were included. The fees quoted, however, do not take account of other expenses such as cost of living or travel to and from the overseas country.
But the researchers also carried out a comparative analysis of a cross-section of similar courses offered by comparable institutions in the five countries in terms of total cost. UK universities included London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Reading and Sheffield and in most cases their fees were higher.
The UK has no health insurance costs and relatively low visa fees but the cost of travel to London from Kuala Lumpur was greater than that to major cities in any of the other countries except Toronto.
Adding tuition fees and living costs showed that studying in the UK tended to be more expensive than in any of the other countries except the US.
A student sitting for a PhD in chemistry at the University of London faced annual costs of almost $20,000 - more than that required to obtain the same qualification at the universities of Sydney, Auckland and British Columbia, and only $400 less than at the University of California at Los Angeles.
The survey was triggered by remarks made by a visiting Asian government minister in Australia early last year. He was critical of postgraduate fees charged by Australian institutions, claiming they were higher than in other developed countries and that research degrees took longer to complete than in the US.
The results of the study, however, show that Australia is highly competitive with the UK and the other three countries. On factors such as entry requirements, course duration, course content, levels of study and assessment procedures, Australia was in every case comparable with similar courses elsewhere, the report says.
Comparative Analysis of Costs of Postgraduate Courses for Overseas Students, published by the Australian Department of Employment, Education and Training.