Research identifies quintuple threat if fees cap is lifted

Degree-course fees are likely to escalate rapidly and could reach as much as five times the current sum if the existing cap is lifted, an education charity has warned.

October 4, 2010

Research published today by the Sutton Trust examines the fees charged to overseas and postgraduate students and identifies wide variation. The most selective UK universities charge twice as much as other institutions in some subjects.

Fees for overseas students from outside the European Union have grown at a significant rate, according to the analysis, reaching figures that are between three and five times the existing £3,290 annual fee for home undergraduates. Some courses cost as much as £20,000 a year.

The study, produced for the charity by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, claims this provides “an indication of what could happen” if the cap on fees is lifted.

“As the patterns for current overseas-student fees demonstrate, charges for degree courses are likely to escalate rapidly if completely unregulated. At the highest end of the market, this could mean annual fees perhaps five times the current annual undergraduate payments – assuming that current government subsidies continue,” says the report, Increasing University Income from Home and Overseas Students: What Impact for Social Mobility?

“There are obvious concerns that…large variations might deter students from less privileged backgrounds from embarking on particular degree courses,” the authors add.

The researchers also analyse trends in overseas-student numbers.

Growth in the proportion of overseas students has outstripped that of home students at UK universities over the past 15 years.

If current trends continue, the authors predict that non-EU students could make up 10 per cent of the undergraduate student body and 50 per cent of postgraduates by 2015.

They warn that capping growth in domestic numbers “inevitably” will hinder attempts to improve social mobility.

Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, called for the government to reject any proposal to lift the fees cap.

“Top-up fees were tripled four years ago and the public will not tolerate a further hike,” he said.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, said institutions in the group were clear that any increase in graduate contributions should be accompanied by measures to address concerns about fair access and widening participation.

“The principle that our universities remain ‘free at the point of entry’ – that contributions are not repaid until graduates are earning – is critical,” she said.

“Institutions would also take great care in setting fee levels, taking a range of factors into account to ensure they are as low as possible.”

She added: “Historical fees for international students do not give any helpful indication of future levels of graduate contributions for home students, because different considerations are taken into account. A deregulated system for home students would create a different funding landscape from the one in which those international fees were set.”

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