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Do all unis offer value for money on £9k tuition fees?

Tuition fees on sign

We’ve talked about the prospect of £9,000 tuition fees, but many hoped that only the top universities would charge this. With most unis now planning to use this top rate, can they all represent value for money?

The government’s new regime will let English unis raise tuition fees from the current £3,290 to between £6,000 and £9,000 a year. These will then be paid off once graduates earn at least £21k.

Anger surrounding these fees doesn’t seem to be abating, and as more unis announce that they’ll charge the highest rates, students’ concerns are growing.

Opinions split on tuition fees

When our Money writer Laura Starkey raised the issue here on Conversation, the comments were split almost equally between those in favour and those against higher fees. Peter was in full agreement with the increase:

‘Perhaps, having to make a significant payment towards their costs, only serious students will bother to take university courses and perhaps they will take their studies more seriously and their social activities less seriously.’

However, Mark was opposed to tuition fees completely, ‘A well educated population is of benefit to the whole of society and, if a graduate earns more, he or she will pay more tax.’

When those comments were made, the question of whether £9,000 fees were fair seemed somewhat hypothetical. That fantastical maximum felt like it was a long way off, and more importantly, that it would only be charged in exceptional circumstances.

Most plan to charge top rate

However, an anonymous BBC survey of 54 English universities found that an incredible two thirds plan to charge the top rate for some or all of their courses. And the average new fee for all of those asked came to around £8,500.

It’s worth pointing out that some universities revealed that they’d offer more financial support to poorer students than others, such as a discount as high as £6,000.

Many institutions have also publicly announced their plans to charge the maximum nine grand, including Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Warwick, Essex, Leeds, Lancaster, Bath, Birmingham, Nottingham, Sussex… the list goes on. Although all fees will need to be approved by the Office for Fair Access, this once dreamlike charge suddenly looks very real.

In a way, it feels like some unis want to charge the highest fees just to prove that they are at the ‘top of the university league’, even when their reputations may not be.

The question is, will students get value for money from each and every one of these universities? Sure, you’re expecting to get a world-class degree when you go to Oxford or Cambridge, but are degrees from other unis really worth that amount of debt?

evie says:
11 April 2011

I went to Uni in the early 70’s, when only a small percentage of students did so, and because it was such a small number, the government could afford to pay student grants (not loans). Now that the aim is to have 50% take-up of higher education, it is unrealistic to expect anything other than loans except for a very few; whether £9000 a year represents value for money is a moot point, but if loans are to be repaid only after salary reaches £21,000 I suspect a great many students will end up repaying only a small proportion of their loans – there simply are not enough graduate-level jobs around. In that case, the level of fees becomes almost academic(no pun intended!) -it makes no difference whether the debt is £10,000 or £40,000, if it is never going to be repaid.
Personally, if I was 18 again, I would think very carefully before going to Uni now – my son graduated six years ago and has not yet needed to pay back a penny of his loans (earnings too low), and he frequently compares his situation with that of school friends who went straight into work and now have money in the bank.

Totally agree with Evie (above) but would also add that it was utter stupidity and incompetence on the Government’s art to ever imagine that any university would dream of charging less than they could possibly get away with, and that will be the maximum in all but a very few cases, because no university is going to want to be perceived as “not quite the best” and the PR stunt (or should that be spheres-up?), led by the Government, that suggested only the top Uni’s would charge the top rates, instantly meant that no university would aspire to charge anything less.

After all, if someone came along and said “only the best consumer campaigning groups can charge a membership fee of over £10 per year”, would Which? willingly say “Oh, OK then, we’ll charge £5 and get customers who think it’s a bargain” ? Of course not, because customers would immediately say “Oh Look, Which? can’t be that good, they’re not charging the top fee”.

Aside from all that though, the entire fees & loans scheme will collapse in disarray before so very long because the Government, which claims that it needs to make vast savings everywhere, pays the fees and then logs them as the Loans that Evie has described so accurately. These loans, as Evie again correctly describes, are not going to be paid off for decades and in many cases not at all, which means that the Government gives the money to the Uni’s but won’t get any of it back for years to come. That’s can’t go on for very long so the system will be forced to change again in not so long at all just to stop that unsustainable spend.

As far as I’m concerned – the emphasis has changed from education to “return for money” which is wrong. Education is a Country’s investment in it’s future – not a business proportion.

I was educated during and just after the war – when Britain was alive with hope for the “good future” Total cost for my degrees to me was zero including mandatory maintenance grants. – I did them in the knowledge I was contributing to the country’s needs for innovative progress. My qualifications enabled me to help design various military appliances that were adapted to civilian uses – the basis of which are still in use today. Later the qualifications helped me teach at Uni – Colleges – and schools. I contributed to Britain’s progress in my small way

Now would I have embarked on such a course – at £9000 a year plus say £3000 a year maintenance – for say six years – a grand total of £72,000??? plus interest .definitely NO!!

I would prefer to start my own business – better faster returns. But would it be as innovative? – no way – Innovation needs research and development money – or genius. I’m just bright )or was)

It was bad enough with Labour’s £3000 a year – which was manageable – but £12,000 a year is a large step too far – I personally would never take on a debt I may not be able to repay – due to circumstances beyond my control – and this “government ” is making more and more “beyond my control”

Waylander101 says:
12 April 2011

It’s simple really, any university that doesn’t charge the full nine thousand is essentially saying “we’re not as good as the 9K mob” and none of them want to do that.

Not so good for the students but what can you do when the govt. doesn’t make things clear enough?

Dr_Aust says:
12 April 2011

I think Waylander1 has the psychology of the “£ 9K or less” correct… though I should add that in my Univ (which I dare say is fairly representative of the Russell Group of research-intensive big city Univs) the backstage discn was widely perceived to be that £ 7.5 K was the “break even figure”. So you could also argue:

1. Break even: £ 7.5 K
2. Any chance of reducing this with “efficiency savings” (as Cable & Willetts keep bleating on about)? Not really.
[After multiple restructures and early redundancy campaigns these last 10-15 yrs there is zero fat left to trim from the payroll, at least among the academics]
3. We will need some money to allow for continuing to upgrade buildings and facilities – lets say £ 500 / student / yr
4. We will need some money to pay for extra access stuff, outreach and especially scholarships. So let’s say add £ 1000 / yr to the fee for that.

£ 7.5 K (break even)
£ 0.5 K (upgrades & facilities)
£ 1 K (scholarships/outreach)
£ 9 K


Concerning what Evie says about repayments, it is not quite right that they will start at £ 21.000. The key point is that that is £ 21,000 in 2015-6 salary terms – it probably corresponds to something close to £ 17-18,000 in 2011 salaries. So essentially anyone WITH a “graduate job” will be making some repayments. It is only those who are unemployed, or in very badly-paying non-graduate occupations, that will escape repayments altogether.

What this is effectively doing is privatising higher education. If you’ve been afforded a public school, chances are your folks would easily be able to pay the fees.

If you were state educated then its probably best to start your own business. High achieving state schoolers really will have it bad I think

Alex says:
12 April 2011

There are a number of things here:

1. Remember that Cambridge and Oxford don’t need external funding as much as newer universities because they get a large amount of income from their investments acquired over the centuries. There’s also a point to be made about whether the cost education should be linked to quality, which is usually the argument made about the advantage gained by pupils at private schools vs state education.

2. The loan amount depends very much on the contract offered to students from the Student Loan Company. I understand that this comes under ministers (secondary legislation) rather than parliament (primary legislation). So watch out for the limit remaining fixed for a number of years as inflation makes the minimum income worth less in real terms. The interest charged on the loan is also changing, depending on how much the borrower earns. This is rather than being based on inflation, which may also be able to change in any contract.

3. The increase in fees is also linked to a cut in the higher education budget so this isn’t all ‘new money’ for universities.

IN response to Alex’s points:

1. Cost linked to quality? Well, I know and agree that that is a commonly held belief, but as an “insider” working in education I can tell you with all confidence that it is usually the case that the worst teachers / lecturers work in the best places, simply because they cannot cope with the demands of the others. Not a cast iron rule applying to 100% of staff and 100% of establishments but a pretty good rule of thumb I’m afraid.

2. Very good points Alex and (as i understand it) absolutely correct.

3. True, but in effect what you (and the government) are saying is that the Universities will get broadly the same amount of funding but a much higher amount of it will be recorded as “debt” against individuals rather than government expenditure agains the education budget line. In other words it’s a “trick” to make the government budget look healthier in the very short term to those who either don’t understand it or glance very quickly.

I have to agree with your first point Dave – My long experience in Education mirrors yours.

As far as I’m concerned it is the old Tory smoke and mirrors technique. – It is a very short term strategy – and will alienate a great many young people.


So the latest news is that all universities will be charging undergraduates at least £6,000 and the Guardian estimates average fees will be more than £8,600:


I find this absolutely shocking – as Patrick says, the £9K fees were originally billed ‘for top universities only’.

Dr_Aust says:
20 April 2011

I don’t buy Dave & Richard’s point about “the worst people working in the best places”, and it certainly doesn’t mirror my experience. I would have said that poor teachers are far rarer ANYWHERE in the sector than when I was a student in the early 80s.

There are a number of confounding effects that are likely relevant, though.

First, I would agree true that the best (as in “most famous, and thus most likely to be research-rich”) Universities remain more likely to TOLERATE someone who is not the greatest teacher if that person is an eminent scholar. But nowadays such people will have their student contact “titrated (way) down” so that they don’t spend much time at the teaching sharp end. The idea is that they earn their corn (and earn the Univ money and kudos) in other ways.

Related to this is that some of the people one might identify as “not great teachers” may be fine running final year project work, or final yr/masters-level taught courses where all the students are already at a high-ish level. To take an extreme example, if you had Albert Einstein working in your Univ, the place to put him teaching-wise wouldn’t necessarily be on 1st year Intro Physics.

Related to this is the old teachers’ line that, the brighter the kid, the less didactic teaching they need. It also needs far more work, and is also much more of a “performance”, to pare down a subject for a 1st yr lecture than it does to give a “near-research” one in the final year.

Finally, I dare say some staff would tell you that you don’t have to be that great a large group set-piece lecturer if you work somewhere like Oxbridge (for instance), since large lectures are often an irrelevance there – small groups are what count in their system. Though the people I know there are all good talkers regardless of group size.

In considering the future, the past trend that I would see as most relevant is that student expectation has risen inexorably over the last two decades, while student pre-Univ achievement, in the judgement of most academics, has fallen (as a result of the increased intake size, among other things). So we do far more “remedial teaching” than was the case two decades ago, and to a lot more students who think they should get the grades without doing the work. It is these latter trends that worry us in the sector, given the likely step change in expectations once the fees go up.

Absolutely and completely agree with the last Paragraph of Dr’. Aust’s post. And I defy anyone to be able to demonstrate that this is not the case.

I’m less sure about Dr. Aust’s opening paragraph though: my teachers (also in the 80’s) were utterly fantastic in every single case, but many of them quit teaching only a decade or less later because when students started to say “no”, or refused to engage in ‘old school’ teaching (i.e. didactic), they found that they could not longer cope and could not engage these students. My own experience as a teacher and later sixth form college middle manager and now senior manager with close liaison with a number of universities, is that teachers in ‘tougher’ establishments, at all levels and age ranges, are outstanding (in general) but that teachers in places with a better reputation (whether deemed deserved or not) generally are not prepared to do any more than the bare minimum work and dismiss students who are slightly more needy or challenging as “useless” and give up on them.

If I was a student or a parent seeing fees of any magnitude being racked up against my name as a debt to repay, I would not want to have any of the latter type of teacher involved in my (or my offspring’s) education.

An interesting point raised in a study today – rising fees will have a major impact on city economies. With fewer students – and students who have less spending power – this will have a knock-on effect on the wider economy.

Here’s more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13279863 – how much of a problem do you think this is this going to be?

Eileen says:
10 May 2011

I really think the cost of going to University is a real rip off for the kids & their parents.

My Son attended The University of Glamorgan Atrium, & constantly complained that the Lecturers didn’t turn up to classes & when they deigned to put in appearance were ill prepared for the lecture & often did not have time to ‘spare’ to answer students questions. Appointments made with some of the Lecturing staff were not kept & without any explanation to the students! I could go on with the list of poor educational standards for a University Degree course, but I’d be here all night.

Suffice to say this Degree has cost my Son an extortionate amount of money for a bunch of over paid Lecturers not to do their jobs! & what is worse to get away with it!

MJ says:
15 May 2011

Universities may well have to justify their value for money as students start questioning what they are actually paying for. Some courses even within the same university vary considerably with only a few lectures and tutorials whilst other courses have almost full time timetables. there is always the argument that research and private study take up a lot of the spare time but are we being hoodwinked. Could it be the case that some degrees only really need 18mths or 2 years to complete and thus the cost of the degree could be reduced.

Dr_Aust says:
15 May 2011

With respect to the thing about “degrees should only take 2 yrs”, one has to be a bit careful. Many Universities outside Oxbridge now operate a 30 weeks-in-attendance year, with 15 week semesters, typically 12 wks teaching + 3 wks testing. It may SOUND like one could plausibly add a a 3rd semester (45 weeks total leaving 7 for breaks), but it is actually not so clear it could be done. At present, with 3 wk breaks at Christmas/New Year and at Easter (paralleling school holidays – note these are breaks for STUDENTS, with most STAFF still at work), there is only at most a 16 weeks gap in the Summer (actually it is several weeks less, as exams meetings and degree grading occur after the end of the formal teaching semester in June, and “fresher’s week” precedes the start of the academic year in September). So adding a 3rd 15 wk “Summer” semester would mean no Summer holidays, unless one shortened the Christmas and Easter breaks. But currently, students typically complain these breaks are too SHORT, not too long.

Another issue is that within the existing Summer break many Universities are also quite busy the last fortnight in August and first wk in September running and grading resit exams. The only time Universities are really free of students is from mid-June to mid-August. This is also when people go on holiday (though rarely for more than 2-3 wks, whatever you may have heard).

The biggest problem, though, is that Summer is also the core research time for staff, at least at the research-intensive Universities. Research, remember, is anywhere between 25 and 75% of a top University’s “business” (as in “income”). If people also want TEACHING from eminent scholars (and the position of the research-intensive Univs at the top of the pecking order for undergrad admissions suggest they do), then these scholars have to have research time. Otherwise they will simply decamp elsewhere. Pay is far less of a motivator for academics moving between institutions than are facilities and time to pursue their own scholarship.

Looking at what is happening to the sector, I think there is a chance that some of the post-92 institutions may move to 3-semester years, and possibly to 2 yr intensive undergrad degrees. But I will be flatly amazed if any of the “old” Universities do.

Cheryl Lopez says:
3 February 2012

I cannot believe it £9000 a year is just being stupid when my dad went to uni he came out with an £800 debt and paid it off unemployed, also the stress of debts will put huge amounts of pressure on the younger kids also, less kids in uni means more kids in streets and more crime. The government need to SERIOUSLY RETHINK what they are doing yeah they re kids will be alright but they need to be put in the students situation and then see how its like. Labour were so much better Cameron AND NICK are just liars increasing student fees who do they think they are, if they want to make students life harder as it is and give them stress and harder time we all have heard they saying WHAT GOES AROUND COMES BACK AROUND” 🙂

First Year says:
29 April 2014

I’m a first year student (21 year old) at university having to pay almost 9 grand in fees and I can say with complete confidence that no way is it value for money.

I study a science in their new, incredibly expensive science building, alas the equipment is far from new or even functional.

Many of my lecturers are horrendous – reading directly off of the Powerpoint. We’ve made it to uni, you’d hope we were capable of reading…and we easily could have done it quicker from the warmth of our own rooms than waiting for them to finish faffing about with lights and dodgy projectors!

I was also told we would be studying a 9-5 day to prepare us for ‘proper’ jobs in the lab. Each day I am supposed to have a two hour lab session in the morning, followed by 2-3 hours in the afternoon with lectures in between. We rarely spend more than an hour there each session and that is spent chatting or asking one another if they’ve actually given us a task or practical to complete – I’m not a bad student, I know I’m there to learn. After two years travelling Asia and Europe and working, I was so ‘up for it’ and willing to learn, but when you’re struggling with something and lecturers cannot seem to explain it any other way but the way you didn’t understand, it’s pretty disheartening.

As I am apparently doing a 4 day week, 9-5, that’s 28 hours a week discounting lunch hours.I probably do about 15 on a hard working week… There are also only actually 24 weeks of university per year, 12 per semester. There is a third semester but it’s for ‘revision’ and is about a month long. I have to pay rent and tuition fees for sitting in my room 3 extra weeks without ever seeing my lecturers (Why pay tuition fees when I’m not being tutored?!?!)

They often set us simple tasks that take maybe 5-10 minutes and leave us for up to an hour before giving us ideas and answers. Harder tasks, when you need a bit of help, lecturers are no where to be seen and the lab assistants (just working so they can use the equipment for research) haven’t got a clue!

I understand that at university, you’re supposed to be conscientious, work things out for yourself, go the extra mile and do plenty of reading up on things, but it’s taking the p*** when they say that ALL THE TIME. Yes, I’ve read around the topic, yes, I’ve spent hours at home chewing my pen as I try and get my head around it, no, I still don’t get it, please spend 10 minutes explaining this too me (which will have to be a meeting outside of lab time generally)!

For my three year course I will have to pay back almost £27,000 in tuition fees, along with maintenance loan my final debt will be almost £40,000. For a grand total of 72 weeks of work (contact hours with lecturers get less and less each year). That’s a year and almost 5 months spread out over 3 years. £1,100 per month for the 3 years, when I’m not even at university for 4 months each year.

Sorry if this is all incredibly jumbled, things that annoy me about uni just keep popping into my head! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy uni, the people are great and my course is incredibly interesting. But the price I’m paying for it?! They’ve either got to reduce the price or condense the course, can’t believe I’m saying it, but no way in hell do we need a 4 month summer and a month long Christmas!

First Year – As a science lecturer who chose to retire early I would like to comment on a few of the points you have raised.

I agree to a large extent with your comments regarding fancy buildings and poor equipment. Part of the problem is that money is allocated for different purposes and that may not even be under the control of the university. There seems to be even more pressure to have impressive buildings now that most universities are charging £9k annual tuition fees. Good teaching staff and competent technicians should keep equipment in good working order, even if it is not new. Lab equipment is built to a much better standard than the average consumer stuff. With large first year classes and different students studying different modules there is no opportunity for students to repeat practical work, so everything has to work first time and that takes careful preparation by teaching and support staff. I was incredibly fortunate in having this support.

Your department should have a student-staff committee or other formal way of making teaching staff and the head of department aware of shortcomings. I ran one of these committees and it was our aim to sort out problems as soon as possible. It was great to hear students report a serious problem with module xxx and say that this had already been resolved. A common problem was that there were not enough copies of books in the library and the lecturers had (carelessly) not though about this or even been told of the problem. The solution is simply to buy more books and/or restrict the loan period, both of which can be done very promptly.

Students are expected to work together and not just on their own, and the best way of doing this is usually to meet up at the university whenever there is an opportunity and on days with no classes. The big difference between when I was a student (early 70s) and now is that we had plenty of time to work together because no-one was working other than during the vacations. Doing paid work during the semester has done wonders for confidence and interpersonal skills of students but many are not working effectively with fellow students.

In large departments it is impossible to give one-to-one support for students on a regular basis. What I encouraged students on my modules to do was to discuss problems with others and to come to see me if they still had a problem. On a module of 250 first year students I had about 10 who would regularly come to discuss problems and were generally prepared to help others with similar problems, either in person or via discussion boards that I had set up online. Where I received an email enquiry I would post an answer so that everyone could see it, if appropriate, so that everyone could have the same help.

There is considerable pressure to teach throughout the year. One of the main problems (certainly in science) is that the long vacation gives teaching staff the opportunity to get down to doing research, attending conferences, writing grant applications and papers, updating their lecture material and planning new teaching to meet the demands of students. Doing research is an important way of keeping up to date with teaching and without this, lecturers would soon become stale and unmotivated. Some students are actually very grateful for the vacations, which allow them to earn money and pay off debts or just have a break from their studies.

I can very much sympathise with you about what is often called ‘death by PowerPoint’. Younger lecturers tend to make better use of it and sometimes even cope with the challenges of uncooperative equipment in front of a large audience. Despite the complaints, I was aware of more complaints from students about those lecturers who did not use PowerPoint.

I believe that there is scope for a significant decrease in tuition fees but the argument is that any university that charges less will be seen as a second-rate university. 🙁

I think you will find the second and third years far more worthwhile. Do find out about the different ways of interacting with staff. Provided that you make criticism constructive, I think you will find that most of your lecturers will be happy to help. If the body language is wrong – perhaps a pained expression – perhaps try again at a different time.

Sorry – that was not supposed to be a lecture. 🙂