Why is University in the UK So Expensive – And Is It Worth the Cost?
With sweeping changes to tuition fees, the cost of going to university has skyrocketed in recent years.
Unsurprisingly, it’s led many students to question whether the benefits a degree can bring are really worth the huge amount of debt they’ll end up in. The average debt figures make grim reading, but is the expense still justifiable? In this article, we look at the arguments in favour of – and, for the sake of balance, against – obtaining a university degree at such expense. Ultimately, we ask the question: are the rising costs really nothing to be concerned about – or have they dealt a fatal blow to university education as we know it?
What does it really cost?
Believe it or not, going to university in the UK used to be free. It wasn’t until 1998 that students began to be charged for tuition, but back then it cost just £1,000 a year across the UK. After that, different parts of the UK began administering themselves, and tuition fees now vary across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In 2004, tuition fees in England rose to £3,000 a year, and by the end of the decade they had risen again, reaching £3,375 a year. In 2012, the maximum tuition fees allowed by the Government shot up to £9,000 a year for students in England and Wales – almost triple what they were. 64 universities immediately began charging this sum, with a further 59 charging at least £6,000. Judging by the number of increases in recent years, this figure may rise still further in the future.
The situation for students in other parts of the UK is rather better. The devolved Scottish Government scrapped tuition fees altogether for Scottish students attending Scottish universities, while in Northern Ireland tuition fees are capped at £3,465 for those studying at UK universities. But students from England, who now have £9,000 a year tuition fees to contend with, face an alarming level of debt when they graduate.
Back in August 2011, the Push university guide predicted that the rise in tuition fees could mean that the average student debt could hit an astonishing £53,400 (a sum that includes maintenance loans and takes into account interest rates and inflation). The average debt of £43,500 (for a three-year course) that has since materialised wasn’t that far off.
The £43,500 question: is this enormous financial burden really worth it?
The benefits of going to university
Let’s start by looking at the benefits of going to university – the reasons why, despite the huge costs, so many people are still flooding to UK universities.
Having a degree strengthens your CV
Unless you have some impressive work experience, your CV may not stand up to peers who have degrees if you’re without one. Having a degree is still seen as a requisite by many employers, with job specs often listing a 2.1 degree as essential. Indeed, so many people have degrees nowadays that many students feel they need to go even further to differentiate themselves from the crowd. To this end, many students now go on to study Masters degrees or PhDs, at even more expense. This leaves an undergraduate degree as a minimum requirement for your CV.
Having a degree is essential for some careers
For some professions, having a degree to at least undergraduate level isn’t just desirable – it’s essential. Medicine is just the most obvious example of a career for which a degree constitutes the actual training. Other professions, such as law or teaching, require an undergraduate degree as a stepping stone to further education.
Studying for a degree gives you transferable skills
No matter what degree you choose to do, even if the knowledge you pick up doesn’t seem relevant to modern life or to the career you want to pursue, the skills you’ll pick up along the way will still come in useful in any career you choose to enter. Your degree studies will require you to be effective at time management, and you’ll need to develop diligent research and analytical skills, written English abilities and many more. It goes without saying that these are all skills that you can apply in situations outside the academic environment, both in the workplace and in life in general.
What’s more, these are all attributes of a desirable employee, and as you apply for your first job after graduating and you find yourself needing to give examples of situations in which you’ve demonstrated such traits, you’ll be glad you have your studies to back you up. Once you’ve landed your first job, you’ll find those time management skills come in handy when you’re up against tight project delivery deadlines or juggling numerous tasks.
You can’t miss out on the “university experience”
The overriding reason for going to university for many students is “the university experience”. It’s a rite of passage: leaving home for the first time, making new friends and getting to know yourself free from parental bonds. You do a lot of growing up when you’re at university, and higher education provides a pretty gentle transition from living at home to fending for yourself in the grown-up world of work.
It’s at university that many of us make friends for life, learn to cook and do the laundry, and discover new foods that we’ve not tried back home. It’s a time when we go out until the small hours, a lot, face last-minute essay crises, share the highs and lows with live-in friends and debate life’s biggest academic questions with inspirational educators. University offers certain life experiences that the world of work cannot, and this aspect is something that those who didn’t go to university may feel they’ve missed out on.
Not sure what else to do?
By the time they finish A levels, not many students know what career they want to pursue. Going to university gives them an extra three or four years of thinking time for it all (supposedly) to become clear. Just being in the university environment, mixing with students studying all kinds of subjects and exposed to firms trying to recruit graduates, can provide students with the inspiration they need to choose what path to take in life.
Other than the cost, are there other arguments against going to uni?
In the interests of a balanced look at the question of whether university is worth the money, let’s now take a look at some of the arguments for not going.
Is work experience more valuable than a degree?
While some may take the view that you’re in a better position to apply for a well-paid job if you have a degree, the fact of the matter is that even among graduates, there’s still intense competition for jobs. Some argue that three years’ work experience is more valuable than spending three years studying for a degree, and in some professions this may well be the case.
Take a web developer, for example. Someone interested in web development may have devoted huge amounts of their spare time during their school years to learning how to code, meaning that by the time they leave school at 18, they’re in a position to apply for a well-paid web development role straightaway. It’s an area that develops so rapidly that a degree in computer science would likely provide little advantage, while direct entry into the job market would result in valuable work experience and actual projects to add to the CV. Three years later, someone who had taken this path could be in a much stronger position than peers who’ve just graduated from a computer science degree course.
University doesn’t suit everyone
Not everyone is academic, but you don’t have to be academic to succeed in life. Some people, for example, are gifted businessmen but struggle with reading and writing; that’s because business is more about people skills and confidence – and you can’t get a degree in those. Sir Richard Branson famously left school at 15 with just three O-levels (now called GCSEs), and certainly no A-levels or university degree, and look where he ended up. University isn’t the right course for everyone, and now that it’s so expensive, it’s likely that more students are going to be asking themselves some searching questions about where their strengths and ambitions lie.
The costs of university: not really anything to be worried about?
As we’ve seen, despite the costs, there are still more arguments in favour of going to university than not. So are the costs really anything to be worried about?
The Government has been eager to reassure students that they should not be put off by higher fees, none of which have to be paid upfront. With the rise in tuition fees, the salary threshold (the annual sum graduates need to be earning before they start paying off their loan) also increased, from £15,000 to £21,000. Once you earn more than this threshold, your loan repayments are 9% of anything you earn above this amount. If you’re earning £21,000 after you graduate, this equates to a student loan repayment of £34 a month, which comes out of your take-home pay automatically along with tax and National Insurance Contributions, before you even see it. So even though it is technically a debt, it’s not one you realistically need to worry about; unlike a mortgage or credit card, if you’re not earning enough, you don’t have to make repayments. Most people forget about their student loan once they start earning a good salary, and don’t include it when talking about their debts.
What’s more, with the new tuition fees, regulations were put in place that force universities charging £6,000 or more to ensure that they have extra financial support available to students from low-income families. With financial support more widely available, including maintenance grants for poorer students that don’t have to be paid back, the new tuition fees shouldn’t be prohibitive.
So what does the future hold for universities?
The cost of studying at university may have reached a record high, but does this mean that universities need to be worrying about falling numbers of students?
In 2012 it was reported that the rise in tuition fees in England had led to 15,000 fewer applications to university – a drop of 8.8% compared with two years previously. This decline wasn’t mirrored in the areas of the UK in which tuition fees hadn’t risen, so the evidence suggested that the higher fees were putting students off.
However, things are now starting to look up again; according to figures published in January 2014, applications have bounced back, with a record 35% of 18-year-olds in England applying for a university place. This year’s 580,000 applications is up 4% on last year. What’s more, a YouGov survey conducted last year found that 40% of the students surveyed still thought that a university qualification was worth the cost (considerably more than the 28% who begged to differ).
As for the universities themselves, they’ll have to work harder than ever to attract the brightest students, and to prove to students once they arrive that the costs of studying with them are justified. Students now have higher expectations and expect better teaching standards, more support and better courses in return for their greater financial investment. Leaving aside the teaching side of things, the “university experience” is still something that many students crave, and this is arguably among the most persuasive arguments in justifying the cost.
If anything, the rise in tuition fees simply means that academic young people are likely to be even choosier about where they spend their money, ensuring that they get the best education they possibly can for the money they’re spending. A good university degree is still very much worth the money, and the life experience university offers is something no amount of money can buy.