Are degrees worth it? Part 2 – cost breakdown

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by Danny Harrington, M.A.(Oxford), Founder, ITS Education


Much of the recent debate around going to university has been stimulated by its increasing cost and this is as true for the international student as the home student. Now when we say increasing cost we very much mean the increasing cost to students (and their families). In the last article we saw the cost to international students estimated at GBP25,000-50,000 per year.

Higher education in England and Wales has been transformed in the last two decades. This has been a complex process as government and universities have sought to grow the percentage of the population in higher education (a pre-requisite for a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, cynics would say to get the unemployment statistics down) but also to grow the research output of universities. This has also meant changing management structures, pay scales, infrastructure investment and more.

When we look at universities as teaching institutions for young adults we often forget how important research is – both in its own right and as a part of the funding models for universities. The top 20 universities in England & Wales (the Russell Group) secure about two thirds of the funding from the UK research councils and significant percentage of funding from other sources. As government has withdrawn direct funding for undergraduates this has left all universities needing to make up the short fall through student fees and those with lower income from research grants have more of a struggle. With fees to home students capped, institutions may look to international students as a major source of income and so we see some with very high percentages of international students (Imperial College London has a whopping 41%* and many have more than 25% of student body from overseas). Of course there are other factors that impact on price such as the reputation an institution has, so universities at the lower end of the scale by reputation/history for both research and teaching find an even greater struggle to attract funding by any means.

This can have a benefit for overseas students. In 2016, a number of universities will have tuition fees for overseas students set even below the maximum fee for home students. The cheapest courses are set at GBP8500 per year. This is very much according to course type. All courses begin to get expensive once they involve laboratories and/or clinical involvement. At the top end of the range, overseas students will be facing tuition fees of GBP30,000-40,000. But for classroom-based courses most overseas students can expect fees around the GBP12,000 mark. When we add in the cost of living (again the figures are wide ranging, everyone lives according to their means) we can expect a further GBP10,000-30,000 per year. The most expensive element in modern England is rent but again this varies wildly from big city to small town, from private to student owned, from north to south etc. if overseas students also want to visit home then a couple of flights need to go on top as well.

So to be realistic the lower level of cost for overseas students is about GBP25,000. One of the unforeseen benefits of Brexit here is that the value of sterling has dropped 10% or so and this cost is therefore 10% cheaper to people funding from overseas sources. With universities also uncertain of funding and student applications from EU countries, there may well be more of an effort to attract students from non-EU countries which could have added benefits. Only time will tell.


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Are degrees worth it? Part 1

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by Danny Harrington, M.A.(Oxford), Founder, ITS Education


When I was at [government] secondary school in the UK in the 1980s there was never any doubt that if you could get to university you did it. The benefits were plain: another three years of free education with government support for living costs; the chance to go through an experience then only taken by some 70,000* people per year; and of course the lifetime that would follow of being,  hopefully, well equipped to continue learning and enjoying a wide range of pursuits open to people who have been through a formal higher education. As such, you generally chose a course based on the subject you enjoyed and worried about what might happen afterwards sometime in the summer before your final year. Lawyers, medics and engineers were seen as slightly strange people who had thought about a career before going to university. Most of us didn’t. I chose Geography because I enjoyed it and entertained vague ideas of joining the army, or the oil industry, or town planning, or ‘something in the City” [none of which happened].

The world is a very different place today.

In the 1980s only about 30% of the population were still in school past the leaving age of 16, now it is 71%. The undergraduate population of UK students has jumped to some 330,000 per year – nearly a fivefold increase – and has been added to by a remarkable 200,000 per year from overseas. It is now the norm to have been through at least further education and not at all surprising to hold a bachelor degree. It is also now very common to have a huge debt related to going through that experience. Most maintenance grants for living costs were stripped away by the 1990s. In 1998 fees came in for tuition. Initially capped at GBP1000 per year, they were soon at GBP3000 per year and in 2012 went up to GBP9000 per year. As of 2017, they are likely to begin rising in increments with the first announcements already out of some courses costing GBP9250 per year subject to parliamentary approval. Of course overseas students already pay for their course in full and will need to find between GBP25000 and GBP50000 per year for all their costs [dependent on institution and course type].

It is this new financial burden that has led many to question the value of taking a degree. I would argue that the huge cost is also distorting the way today’s young approach the whole question of what university is about and what its purpose is. And let’s not forget that it makes universities behave differently as well as they become more like competing businesses looking for customers in a limited market.

I’ll address each of these effects in the coming weeks.

*All data in this article series is from either the House of Commons Library, open to public scrutiny, compiled from a number of government education statistical reports, or from the Higher Education Statistics Agency [HESA] in particular.


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Finally – Flexible course choice at UK universities

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by Danny Harrington, M.A.(Oxford), Founder, ITS Education


Universities in the US and the UK still dominate any list of the world’s top higher education institutions, often justifiably. What many people do not always understand is that as these lists are commonly a complete overview of a university’s evaluation they include both research and teaching. Now, there is a very good argument that if you have great research you can provide great undergraduate teaching but this does not always actually happen in the real world. When secondary/high school students and their parents are looking at university rankings they should try to find lists that focus on the undergraduate experience only – quality of teaching, class size and frequency, spend per head, student satisfaction, and employability [in relevant jobs not any old job to survive].

If you are comparing the UK and the US as possible destinations then one of the things that becomes obvious is that you need to compare systems before institutions. I have always been of the opinion that neither system is best per se. They are different and those differences may confer advantages or disadvantages to you as an individual learner. That said, I do believe that some systemic differences can be absolutely advantageous or disadvantageous and one of these is flexibility on course choice.

The US has for a long time been very flexible with the choices students have. Freshman often make some quite wide ranging class choices and specialisation happens much later if at all. Very specialist subjects in the US come afterwards in “grad” school. The UK on the other hand has always been very rigid. You choose a course which is fixed for three years and if you don’t like it the only “choice” is usually to like it or lump it. These are of course extreme ends of the spectrum. One can argue that many US students end up with a degree in not very much and have to spend way too much time and money qualifying for anything more specialised. Perhaps US universities need to be more flexible with their flexibility!

The good news for UK based students is that the government is currently looking at the possibility that students could not only be allowed to swap courses more easily but would be actively asked whether they wish to at the end of the first year, possibly by UCAS which co-ordinates UK university admissions. There are of course many objections. The two main ones are the administrative cost and the idea that universities will become more beholden to student opinion and have more uncertain finances.

To the latter I would say tough to the universities. There are probably a few too many of them and perhaps some market forces would be a good thing to get rid of those not delivering good value at undergraduate level. And I have a natural distaste for any institution which takes the patriarchal, patronising position that they know best. This is where UK universities fall down. They do not put undergraduate students first. Any educational institution that does not put its students at the forefront of its thoughts has already failed in my book.

The cost is a real and very large concern. One feels instinctively that in the current climate the only place the costs are going to fall ultimately is on the student. There is no taste in government for more spending and in fact higher education costs are already rising for students. If the new flexibility is only going to be available to the wealthy well then it is pointless. The wealthy already have all the flexibility they need. But if the system can embrace the idea, at no cost to students, that the average learner benefits from choice and breadth until quite late in their academic life, possibly for all of it, then we could be on to a good thing in the UK which will help redress the balance to the US. The modern world does not necessarily require 22-year-old subject specialists. It requires people with skills, including the skill of how to learn. Good degree courses can achieve that without being beholden to the intricate details of the Westphalian Peace, or the inner workings of graphene.


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UK university fees update

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by Danny Harrington, M.A.(Oxford), Founder, ITS Education


In line with what we were saying last week about universities beginning to raise fees under the current government decision to allow inflation-based increases, the first announcements have now been made. This is despite the fact that the increases are yet to be officially allowed.

Manchester, Durham, Kent and Royal Holloway are some of the names who have announced 2017 fees will increase to GBP9,250 per year from the current limit of GBP9,000. This is a rise of 2.8% at a time of record lows for the UK inflation rate which has been well below 1% for quite some time.

Interestingly, it was labour governments who scrapped the grants funding system and introduced tuition fees. The first were implemented in 1998 at GBP1000 per year and then raised in 2003 to GBP3000. In this sense, these rises are perhaps not too bad. Education inflation globally tends to hover in the 4-6% range. In the context of having to pay, these rises are not all that bad. The question of whether students should pay is a bigger idealogical issue.

Exeter University is one of the few so far to announce their 2017 fees remain unchanged. Of course these figures only apply to British passport holders who have met the residency requirement of 3 years prior to starting the course. Anyone else is classed as an international student and fees are much higher, typically starting from GBP15,000 per year. These fees continue to increase as per individual university needs and are often a way to cross-subsidise local students.

International students should continue to keep an eye on UK fees and the alternatives to going to UK for university. Many European universities now offer high quality courses taught in English and can be accessed using UK school qualifications. Many of these are also totally free depending on student status. Alternatively, there are now many online options and flexible ways to build a degree. ITS Education offers a BTEC HND in Business which is a globally recognised diploma equivalent to two years of a degree and which can be topped up to a full degree with one year of additional study at UK university partners. In this way, international students with lower budgets could be able to gain a UK degree for as little as GBP15,000 or about 30% of the cost of going to UK.


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Uncertainty order of the day for post-Brexit Britain

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by Danny Harrington, M.A.(Oxford), Founder, ITS Education


That is the only certainty anyone can currently see in Britain as a whole today and education is no different from any other part of UK life.

In amongst all the various changes, potential changes and many unknowns, the new Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, has been given a mandate for both schools and higher education and the media are flinging about all kinds of suggestions about what ideas she may have and what policies the government may follow. This needs to be watched closely. With parliamentary opposition in disarray, another decade of Tory government is quite possible, some may say probable, so policies formed now may well be seen through.

Most of what she does will impact on “home” students. At school level, the usual political footballs are school “type”, curriculum content & structure, and how students are examined/accredited. For international students, the last couple of years have seen the consolidation of international versions of UK school qualifications and it seems they are now unlikely to change very much, at least for the next five years. The rest of it is irrelevant to international students.

In higher education there are two big ideas being floated by government and they are linked. The first is to allow more providers  to teach higher level qualifications. Effectively, make it easier to become a degree awarding institution. The other is to allow fee increases beyond the current GBP9,000/year cap. Allowing the second will encourage the first, so goes typical market-oriented thinking. The fees of course do not impact international students who already pay considerably more. What will be of interest is what impact this may have on the availability of courses and their quality. International students thinking of going to the UK for higher education should watch both the rule changes and market changes carefully. It is unfortunate that immigration has been such a strong part of the current debate and the Brexit decision. It has made it all but impossible to do anything about international student visa numbers and conditions. In my opinion, the UK made a terrible mistake removing the right to work after completing a degree and that advantage is now lost, for a good while at least, to other countries across the world which retain it.

There will be an interesting battle then between the government and the vested interests of the universities, not least because the universities are divided on which policies they back and which they do not. With the status of European students and research agreements now unknown, universities face great uncertainty in their budgets. Some see Brexit as positive, some negative. There is a real mix of opinion and approach – poor planning has meant many who assumed a Remain vote have not thought through the other scenarios, the situation is fluid and unknown for those that have, and anyway universities are very different from each other.

One silver lining for international students may be that UK universities value them even more and make more of an effort to reach out to them with enhanced local learning options, teacher support, access to services and the like. Watch this space.


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