With the future of undergraduate tuition fees in UK universities now in the balance as a major review takes place into post-18 education funding in England, there has at least been some policy stability in the past few years in master’s funding.
Postgraduate loans to cover fees and living costs are now in place in all parts of the UK (although they vary in the terms and maximum amount available) and they have been credited with an uplift in the number of students moving on to a master’s.
However, one fear that was always expressed alongside the decision to bring in such loans was that universities – who have traditionally subsidised their master’s provision from overseas fees and other income – would hike their fees in response.
According to this year’s annual survey of fees compiled by the Complete University Guide, the average fee for domestic and European Union students taking a classroom-based taught postgraduate course in 2018-19 has taken another significant leap upwards. It now stands at just over £7,400.
This is an 8.3 per cent increase on the average for 2017-18 and 31 per cent higher than the average postgraduate taught course in 2014-15, two years before postgraduate loans were introduced in England.
In terms of the variation in postgraduate taught fees among universities, out of the 83 UK institutions that provided an average home/EU fee rather than a range of them, just two said they were charging less than £5,000, down from 13 in 2017-18. However, despite this, the number charging more than £10,000 has gone up only slightly.
The upward trend in average fees is also repeated for lab-based subjects, although the fact that the average for such courses is only marginally higher at £8,205 for 2018-19 for home/EU students suggests that they continue to receive more of a subsidy from institutions (and in England there is still some direct teaching funding available for such subjects from the Office for Students).
Despite this, the average for lab-based courses is still 8.6 per cent higher than 2017-18 and the overall trend is even clearer when looking at the ratio between home/EU postgraduate taught fees and those for overseas students.
For overseas students, the average fee has gone up by 3.6 per cent for classroom-based master’s degrees and 4.4 per cent for lab-based courses. It means that, whereas two years ago both types of master’s degree cost more than twice as much for overseas students, the ratio has now fallen below 2:1 for classroom-based courses.
Paul Wakeling, head of the department of education at the University of York, said it was always the worry that introducing loans would mean there was a drift in domestic master’s fees towards £10,000.
“The other thing that is driving it is that, because universities can’t put up the undergraduate fee, there may be some inflationary pressures spilling over into fees that they can control,” he said.
However, Professor Wakeling pointed out that, before state loans were available, most master’s fees had been well below the cost of putting on such courses.
“It still amazes me that you have undergraduate courses that are nine months in duration and charge £9,250 and then you have master’s courses which are 12 months in duration and charge lower fees,” he said.
International postgraduates were still therefore in effect subsidising home/EU master's fees, he said, even though recent rises meant it was “starting to look like [universities] are washing their face, as they say in business, a bit more” and covering more of their home/EU costs.
Despite the rises, Professor Wakeling added that the evidence since loans came in was that there had been an increase in the number of UK students from lower-income backgrounds who were going on to do a master’s.
But he said the issue would be if fees kept increasing to a point where the loans – which in England are supposed to help cover living costs as well as fees – started to become ineffective.
“At the moment…if you top up [the loan] with earnings you may just about be able to squeeze by,” especially if students lived at home, he said.
“If [fees] start to go up to £8,000 or £9,000…that is looking really quite challenging,” Professor Wakeling added, saying it was not just about students affording to take a course but also whether they “can they make a success out of it” without too much of their time being taken up with a part-time job.
Gill Clarke, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, said that it was “a bit too difficult” to predict what a “tipping point” on home fees might be. But she pointed out that “we have already seen a dropping-off in part-time and mature students and economically there might come a point where the burden of initial outlay, even with a loan, is seen to outweigh the advantages of a higher qualification.
“In some subjects, if apprenticeships at higher levels get off the ground, they might become a feasible alternative to a postgraduate degree for some, or employer sponsorship is another possibility, again more likely in some subjects than others.”
However, Ms Clarke, a DPhil student in education at the University of Oxford, cautioned about reading too much into changes in straight averages on postgraduate fees. She said they may mask significant variation among subjects and institutions.
Meanwhile, there is also the question of what the continuing uncertainty about the future status of EU students may be having on fee setting by institutions.
Could the smaller rises in overseas postgraduate fees be an attempt to keep a lid on prices in case the status of EU students changes at some point to be the same as international students?
Ms Clarke said it was “unlikely” that universities had this in mind “especially given that PGT courses rarely run for more than a year” although it clearly may become relevant in the future, she said.
Professor Wakeling too was sceptical that this entered universities’ calculations given that “nobody really knows what will happen” as a result of Brexit negotiations.
University finance directors would also be aware that a sudden change in EU students’ status would mean needing only half as many to pull in the same income, despite this being a “disaster” for classroom diversity, he said.
The fees survey also demonstrates that in one subject area universities can still rely on pulling in major amounts of money wherever students are from: MBAs.
The average fee for overseas students taking an MBA has gone up 5.7 per cent this year while for home/EU students the hike on average is 6.6 per cent. It also remains the only type of degree where overseas and home/EU fees are not too far apart: both averages are between an eye-watering £18,000 to £20,000.
Full fees survey table for 2018-19
Source: Complete University Guide
Notes: All fees relate to full-time fees per year (unless otherwise stated). † Figures are from 2017–18; for the University of Salford these differ from those in the 2017–18 Reddin return. ‡ 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.