Tuition fees: money well spent?

Today, The Guardian reported the publication of a report out today from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) with the headline ‘“Less than half’ of tuition fees spent on teaching at English universities‘. 

The headline here is more than a little misleading as the article goes on to report how HEPI’s paper shows how almost all of the tuition fees charged to students at English universities are spent on student-facing costs.

However, to understand this issue, we also need to remember some other stuff about fees.

When fees were tripled to £9k, the intention was that 1/3 of the income over £6k would be spent on access measures (bursaries, outreach, etc). This was never made a specific requirement, but it would amount to 11.7% of what is now a £9,250 fee.

It seems that, while universities do spend a lot on access, there’s a significant underspend compared to this intended level. That’s bad news for access but good news for current students who get more of the the direct value of the fee that is paid on their behalf.

‘Paid on their behalf’ is important here. In the debate about whether students get value for money, we should remember that whatever graduates end up paying, it’s very unlikely to be £9,250.

For some it will be far more. For most it will be far less. The Government reckons about 45% will never be paid by the graduate: the amount they will at some point pay equates to around £5,087 per year of study.

In other words, students pay barely anything more than the direct spend on their teaching and definitely far less than the amount that is spent on things that directly benefit them. That’s good value for money in anyone’s book.

I am not saying that the system of tuition fees is right or fair. Others – taxpayers, employers – get value for money from higher education and the balance of contributions they make may not reflect that equitably.

We should also note that the split of how fees are spent will vary hugely between courses. For an engineering student, the direct cost of teaching will be far higher than for a philosopher. Indeed, some data suggests costs would exceed the whole £9,250 for the engineering course.

That doesn’t mean the philosophy student gets ‘bad’ value though. On average they earn less than engineers, so – if they do – they end up paying less.

It also needs to be pointed out that not all value is measured in money. In fact, what matters most is not.

Two final reflections: I wholeheartedly support the report’s recommendation that ‘student fee’ is more appropriate terminology than ‘tuition fee’ and this paper slam dunks the proof of this.

This level of transparency about how funds are spent is really important. Some of the truths may be awkward, but it’s more awkward to avoid them. The truth here actually turns out to be universities’ friend.

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, has argued this last point well in this blog, quoting medieval canon Henry Knighton committing one of history’s worst mixed metaphors when he objected to the translation of the Bible from Latin into English saying, ‘The jewel of the church is turned into the common sport of the people’.

By the way, congratulations on a great piece of work to its authors: Nick Hillman, Jim Dickinson, Alice Rubbra and Zach Klamann.

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