Fair prices and market limits

Loans could push up the price of master’s courses, but with such degrees becoming sine qua nons, should fees be restrained?

August 13, 2015
Pound symbol balloons (fee rise) illustration

It is a well-rehearsed truth that those young people receiving their A‑level results today are likely to find money much harder to come by than their parents did. Well-paid jobs are being squeezed (especially in the public sector), house prices are skyrocketing (especially in the South) and, in England, university tuition fees are likely only to climb as the introduction of the teaching excellence framework provides potential political cover for raising the current cap.

Yet higher fees for undergraduate tuition would also impose upward pressure on fees for taught master’s degrees. Our cover feature this week reveals that the latter currently average less than £6,000 a year for home students – something of an anomaly given that taught master’s courses often cost more to deliver than undergraduate courses.

There is a case to be made that today’s 18-year-olds should be grateful that they are not already £100,000 in debt. After all, part of the logic of introducing tuition fees in universities was that it is not only society that benefits when someone is put through university – individuals do as well, enhancing their career prospects and earning potential. The argument could easily be applied to schools, too – and converting the majority of Department for Education spending into a new kind of student loan would be a massive contribution to eliminating the deficit.

One reason that even the most right-wing of thinktanks would hesitate to propose such a remedy is that going to school is a prerequisite for becoming a contributing member of society, and is therefore compulsory. Nobody is gaining a leg-up by going to school (if it is a state school, at least).

But there is an argument that attending university is increasingly becoming a necessity for anyone seeking a professional job, given that so many of the other applicants will have done so. That is probably one of the major reasons that students continue to flock to universities despite the tripling of fees in 2012. And even if, as our lead news story this week suggests, the removal of the undergraduate numbers cap this year is unlikely to lead to an immediate explosion in undergraduate enrolments, it is likely to add in the longer term to the sense that those aspiring to an ever-growing number of careers have no realistic choice but to go to university.

That, in turn, will serve to push more students to do a master’s as a way of distinguishing themselves from the crowd, until a master’s too becomes essential. That is already reputedly true in some walks of professional life. Our feature suggests that universities have so far been restrained from increasing home postgraduate fees in line with undergraduate fees in part by the lack of attractive finance options to pay them. There is now a fear that the coming introduction of state loans of up to £10,000 for taught master’s students could weaken that impediment.

But whatever fee levels the market might theoretically bear, there is arguably a strong social case for continuing restraint in university fees. Quite apart from general concerns about the overall levels of debt with which young people now begin their working lives, it seems harsh to charge an arm and a leg for something that is becoming less and less about getting a leg-up and more and more about keeping up in the credentials arms race.


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