Students of England: are you getting a fair deal?
A university education: how much is it worth? Should it be free, or should we be made to pay? With the cost of getting a degree in this country skyrocketing, Otto Rich goes global and looks at how other countries deal with the problem of funding universities
During the rule of the Labour government, higher education in the United Kingdom has gone from being universally free, just as healthcare or school, to typically costing £3,000 a year, with the introduction in September 2006 of the controversial ‘top-up’ fees. Virtually all universities have chosen to charge the full amount; and with soaring costs for rent, bills and not to mention booze, students across the land now have to get themselves into some serious debt in order to finance ‘the best years of their lives’. We’ve already heard the arguments for and against top-up fees, and the fors seem to have won over. The government seems to want to strike a balance between the acute funding crisis in higher education, hence the introduction of fees, together with concern not to close doors to those from less financially able backgrounds through the inclusion of means-tested loans and various other methods of support.
But is the new system actually fair? Whether or not it is, it seems that most nations around the world now charge their citizens for tertiary education to a greater or lesser degree. Some countries, most famously the United States, have always done so, with most universities free to charge whatever they like. The result is that they are the world’s best-funded and highest-achieving universities, despite the system being perceived as being the most unfair. Other nations, such as most of the Scandinavian countries, maintain completely free tertiary education with generous student support, but once graduated, students have to start paying the highest income tax rates in the world.
So what is the ideal balance to be struck? Are UK students really hard done by compared to our counterparts on the continent and further afield when it comes to the cost of studying? Some interesting comparisons can be made, but it is important to look not only at the basic cost of study, but to take note of the ‘typical student lifestyle’; those in English-speaking or Nordic countries who usually go away from home to study need to find more money than the average continental European, for example, who will normally stay living at home and study locally.
Typical tuition fees £3,000
Are government grants or student loans available? Yes, loans
Percentage of young people at university? 24 %
Unlike the old system, which involved a flat rate of around £1,250 per year charged to all students, with the government meeting either part or the full cost for students from less well-off families, the new programme allows universities to charge up to £3,000 for their tuition. Most universities, already strapped for cash, have jumped at the chance to charge more. The main difference is that students now have the option, regardless of their parental income, of borrowing the money from the Student Loan Company and paying it back on top of their normal loan after they graduate. The loan itself still works in the same way, with those from poorer backgrounds being offered more money than those who can count on lots of support from their parents. Good news, however, for those who graduate and find the streets aren’t necessarily paved with gold; the rate you have to earn to start paying back the loan is gone up from a mere £10,000 to £15,000 a year.
Compared to other European countries, Britain does now seem an expensive place to study, especially considering our higher cost of living and the fact that most of us leave home to attend our courses. Student debt is therefore far bigger than it is on the continent, but there is help for those who need it. The main problem is that those from less able backgrounds are ‘put off’ university by the prospect of debt rather than being physically barred from going. Let’s be thankful we’re still a long way from a US-style system of private universities with massive fees and minimal state support, although the current changes imply a worrying shift towards this model on the part of the government.
Typical tuition fees £570 – £2,010
Are government grants or student loans available? Yes, grants
Percentage of young people at university? 32 %
Italy’s state-owned universities are allowed to charge tuition fees for up to 20 per cent of the total cost of the course; that is, the government would meet at least 80 per cent. Actual costs, however, vary according to the university and the course itself. To give a rough idea, an Arts subject at a less prestigious establishment would charge around 850 euros a year, but a Medical degree at a top school could set you back up to 3,000 euros. For those from poorer backgrounds, it is the universities themselves rather than the government that helps with the fees.
Borse di studio (‘study bursaries’) are therefore given out, but they depend on the university itself; some are more generous than others. Whether or not you qualify also depends a lot on merit and whether you’re studying away from home as well as your financial circumstances, meaning that very bright students can receive them even if their families aren’t that hard up. On the other hand, however, if you’ve done badly in your Maturità exams (the Italian equivalent of A-levels), you’re going to have a harder time qualifying for help with the fees.
In terms of state support, Italians typically get a grant rather than a loan, which is means-tested so that those whose parents’ incomes are low receive the most. Most students qualify for some money. However, the amounts are less than a U.K. student loan with the average payment being around 800 euros a term.
On paper, Italian students would seem to be getting a slightly better deal than their British counterparts, but you have to factor in the fact that universities are chronically under-funded as a result; jam-packed lecture halls and minimal extra-curricular activities are the norm.
Typical tuition fees Free
Are government grants or student loans available? Both
Percentage of young people at university? 19 %
In keeping with its generous social welfare programme, Sweden, in common with the other Scandinavian countries, seems to be one of the most student-friendly nations in the world. Not only is undergraduate higher education in Sweden completely free, but you don’t normally even have to pay for post-grad courses. This is accompanied by generous state provision for grants and loans, no matter what your parental income. A full-time student, regardless of course or family income, receives around £180 a month, while those wanting to take out the loan are allowed to borrow up to £345 a month. The grants and loan aren’t available over the summer months, however, but students who live away from home in Sweden still typically have just under £5,300 a year to live on from the grant and the loan.
Sounds like student paradise? There are some catches: firstly the cost of living is high, booze is particularly crippling. And once graduated, graduates have to start paying some of the world’s highest taxes to help fund all this largesse.
Despite the rip-off pints and the high taxes, Swedish students do seem to have it pretty good. However, as one Swedish undergrad notes: “it does encourage some students to be lazy about studying. Quite a lot of people I know just enrol at university for the cash. But I do see we’re pretty lucky compared to students in most other countries, especially post-grads.”
Typical tuition fees £5,200 – £21,000
Grants or loans? Limited provision
Percentage of young people at university? 20 %
Find it had to scrape together battels bills out of what’s left of the student loan? Spare a thought for the poor old Yanks. Over in the States, middle-class parents start saving for a ‘college’ fund the moment a child is born, as the costs involved in putting a child through higher education are akin to buying a house. Around half the universities in the US (including most of the more famous ‘schools’ like Harvard, Yale or MIT), are actually private. Thus they can charge students what they like, typically up to US$42,000 a year, all-inclusive (i.e. food, board and tuition). The state colleges also charge, but fees are much lower, usually around the US$14,000 mark.
However, the world of tertiary education across the Atlantic is far more complicated than simply ‘rich in, poor out’.
Firstly there is help available for students (the majority, to be honest), who can’t afford these astronomical fees. Help usually comes in the forms of bursaries, endowments or long-term loans from the universities themselves. In some cases, for example, an Ivy League university will offer a financial aid package for the entire amount of the fees for a particularly outstanding student from a poor background. Even if you’re not from a poor background, but are not really well-off, colleges typically offer $10,000 off the fees if you’re a good candidate
However, despite the universities’ own grants and loans, the chances of getting them, especially if you’ve been to a bad high school, are slim. It is generally accepted that the higher education system in the U.S. is heavily weighted against poorer students.
“The system we have is definitely not fair”, comments Liz Elmi, who studied at Vassar College, an Ivy League school in upstate New York. “People that grow up in poor areas can’t put all their faith in the hope they’ll get a financial aid package. It’s definitely a big disadvantage if your parents have less money.” However, US universities usually provide a top-quality education, with none of the funding and overcrowding problems that European institutions face.
Typical tuition fees £1,250 – £3,660
Are government grants or student loans available? Yes, usually loans
Percentage of young people at uni? Unknown
With the population about half that of London, New Zealand is a small player on the world stage, unless the talk is of bungee-jumping, gap years or sheep shearing – and even then the islands are usually overshadowed by its enormous neighbour, Australia. But New Zealand presents an interesting parallel to the U.K. in terms of higher education costs in that the system coming into force here is roughly the same system the South Pacific nation has had since the late 1990s, when a shaky economy forced Wellington to cut back on the once-generous welfare state.
Currently New Zealand universities charge small tuition fees depending on the course followed; the costs are linked to the projected earning power of the graduate rather than the actual cost of running the course, so a nursing degree shouldn’t cost more than NZ$3,600 (about £1,250) a year, while medicine or veterinary science courses can charge up to NZ$10,500
In order to pay for these, and of course the all-important living costs, the government offers a system of grants and loans, which bizarrely are paid weekly. A grant, known as a ‘student allowance’, is available to anyone with a combined parental income of less than NZ$75,000 (or £27,000) a year, and increases the less the parents earn. The sums involved are pretty small, however, if your parents earn NZ$60,000 a year, you’d get just NZ$78 (£27)
The low sums involved look more generous when you take into account New Zealand’s low cost of living. It is the cheapest country on this list, with the exception of South Africa, with rents at typically just NZ$60 a week. Nevertheless, New Zealand has serious problems at the moment with the student loans system, as so many graduates emigrate to Australia and Europe to take advantage of higher wages and disappear without paying back the money they’ve borrowed.
Typical tuition fees £3,900
Grants or loans? Both
Percentage of young people at university? Estimated at around 10%
So far on this list all the nations looked at have been wealthy, developed nations whose governments have many resources at their disposal. But how do developing nations deal with the problem of financing higher education when such larger proportions of students face financial difficulties, so governments and universities typically have less money at their disposal?
Prior to the end of apartheid in 1994, little funding was made available even to primary- and secondary-education students of the black majority – never mind tertiary-level instruction – while the white population enjoyed facilities and support on a par with Europe or North America. Now, like nearly every sphere of public life, university admissions in the new South Africa are governed by a strict quota system on racial lines – with institutions having to admit a certain number of black, ‘coloured’ (mixed African and European ancestry) and Asian students.
The typical fee to study at undergraduate level at an Afrikaans-language university (which were formally the reserve of the White elite) is 55,000 rand (about £3,900), a year; other institutions charge less. The maximum government loan available is 40,000 rand (£2,840) a year, but you would have show that your entire family’s income is less than 2,000 rand (just £141) a month. It is paid back in monthly instalments after graduation.
In addition to this there is a myriad system of US-style bursaries available for bright students, many of whom would rely on these as well as part-time jobs to get by as the maximum loan wouldn’t even cover the fees, let alone living costs. These are doled out by universities themselves and various government agencies, but competition for them is fierce.
Leanne van Breda is a white South African who studied Drama at the Afrikaans-language University of Pretoria. “Nowadays everyone in South Africa can study if they want to, you just have to time it right and speak to the right people concerning the quotas system and the various grants and loans. Honestly though, the racial quotas system is open to abuse. My university was considered very much an establishment of the old South Africa and didn’t have enough black students, so those who had enrolled would, however, mysteriously find it easier to pass the year and receive grants and bursaries.”
In all, the fees in South Africa look all the more expensive considering many people’s circumstances, though the cost of living in South Africa is of course far lower than European, U.S. or even New Zealand levels. Despite the quotas and the financial aid, it is no surprise that far fewer black people proceed to higher education than whites due to poor schooling and a general lower level of education caused by years of neglect under apartheid. But the situation is improving rapidly, especially among the urban black
middle-class. In redressing the racial imbalances, however, white students are subject to quite a bit of discrimination.