A UK university education is one of the least affordable in the world, according to a study by a North American think-tank.
Although the UK comes 14th out of 16 countries surveyed, its low ranking has little to do with English universities charging tuition fees, according to the study by the Educational Policy Institute, a US-based independent, non-profit organisation researching educational opportunity.
The study uses a range of factors to determine affordability, a point underlined by the fact that higher education in the UK is deemed less affordable, albeit marginally so, than it is in the US. Yet some US universities charge the equivalent of more than £20,000 a year for tuition compared with a current maximum of £1,050 in England and Wales.
Alex Usher, vice-president of the EPI, said: "On some measures, education in the US is about one-third less expensive than in the UK, even if private four-year colleges are included. Reasons include the UK's high cost of living, lower average incomes and weak student grant programmes. Tuition fees are a factor, but even pre-Dearing, the UK would not have done well in these rankings."
The introduction of variable top-up fees of up to £3,000 in 2006 would probably cause Britain to fall one place in the affordability ranking, Mr Usher said.
The study draws on data for tuition (the UK figure is for 2002-03), cost of living figures from Eurostudent and the international student cost database project at the State University of New York at Buffalo, which measures out-of-pocket costs - that is, all costs minus all student assistance (loans and grants).
But the more complete measure of affordability is represented by out-of-pocket costs after tax expenditure, according to the study.
This comprises educational and living costs and all possible forms of financial support. But it is controversial because it includes "indirect" support such as tax-based benefits, family allowances and reductions in tax due.
Mr Usher said: "Overall, Sweden is far more affordable than the rest of the countries surveyed, although Finland and the Netherlands run close." But he added: "Once all the forms of assistance are taken into account and ability to pay is factored in, there is little difference between Europe, North America and Australia in terms of affordability. Everyone just finds a different route to arrive at the same place."
The survey also looks at accessibility. It concludes that, despite poor performances on affordability, Canada, the US and the UK do reasonably well. The EPI developed an educational equity index to measure how closely the socio-demographic mix of a country's student population matches the overall population. On this measure, one of four used to compile the ranking, only the Netherlands has a less elite higher education system than the UK.
Mr Usher said: "There is an important lesson here: affordability and accessibility may not be as tightly linked as some people think. This should at least be a yellow light to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats: why spend billions eliminating tuition fees if access is already pretty good?"
Global Higher Education Report: Affordability and Accessibility in Comparative Perspective , by Alex Usher and Amy Cervenan, the Educational Policy Institute ( www.educationalpolicy.org ).
(NB: average cost is only one indicator used to compile the overall ranking)
Country - average cost
4 Belgium (Flemish Community)
6 Belgium (French Community)
15 New Zealand