My classes are all online—so why am I paying the same pre-Covid university fees?

Coronavirus has highlighted the extent to which universities depend on selling experiences to students in order to justify high fees

August 18, 2020
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The longer I spent at university as an undergraduate, the more I realised I was paying for something other than a degree. From the moment I set foot on campus during fresher’s week, I was encouraged to engage with the optional extras: student societies, faculty events, extracurricular activities, networking, and making the most of campus life. Study was important, I was told, but so was having a well-rounded “university experience.”

Everyone from lecturers to acquaintances to career advisors emphasised this point. University “experience”—that nebulous term evoking a tapestry of friends, extracurriculars, competitions, and causes—was worth prioritising almost over study itself, assuming one had the time and money to do so. It would impact not only personal growth and fulfillment but would also contribute to professional development and employability. Moreover, university experience was apparently part of what distinguished on-campus higher education from remote learning and educational YouTube channels. Lectures could be watched online, but the networking opportunities that could lead to jobs after graduation were built around face-to-face interaction.

In short, it was a truth universally acknowledged that the typical student would—and should pay to attend university as much for the university experience as for the degree.

The coronavirus and its impact on higher education has thrown the value of the university experience into sharp relief. With campuses restricted or closed, it becomes harder to justify the high cost of degrees. Indeed, how does one reconcile the relationship between fees, higher education’s value, and the price tag?

To start, fees are high because universities have large expenses. These include construction and maintenance costs, investment in technology; insurance; marketing; welfare initiatives, and payment of staff salaries.

Yet universities are businesses competing in a crowded higher education market and their fees are high in response to this competition. To attract students, they must out-compete other universities by offering exceptional campus life and services, high numbers of faculty members and courses, and strong research output and reputation. All these areas cost money to fund—and they cost even more money to market effectively. As costs balloon in a bid to attract students, fees increase for the opportunity to attend such quality institutions.

The problems with increasing costs are significant. Price hikes mean universities become less accessible to students from low-income families. Universities’ high operational costs mean institutions risk entering funding agreements that impinge on academic freedom rather than decline money; accepting industry funding in exchange for producing potentially biased medical research is a good example of this problem High operational costs also render universities increasingly dependent on inflated international student fees, leaving them particularly vulnerable this year when many international students are staying home either by choice or by obligation.

Especially troubling is how even before the coronavirus, rising fees did not necessarily correlate with better tuition or improved university experience. UK tuition fees have famously trebled from £1,000 to £3,000 in 2006 and from £3,000 to £9,000 in 2012. Though that's not the end of the story: between 2015 and 2017, the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that UK universities’ income increased by £915m (2.7 per cent); that they made a surplus of £2.3bn, and that as of April 2018, they had total reserves of £44.27bn. When universities make that much profit all while increasing fees and casualising staff, it is difficult to argue that price hikes represent returns for students.

The coronavirus has highlighted the extent to which universities depend on selling experiences to students in order to justify high fees. Universities across the UK are retaining their pre-coronavirus tuition fees despite shifting online and adopting social distancing measures on campuses—and students are concerned about whether online learning is worth the money. A London Economics study from May found that more than 20 per cent of prospective undergraduate students would defer enrolment were universities still delivering classes remotely and limiting social activities in the autumn. Yet who can blame them, considering networking, student societies, and on-campus research opportunities are so often cited in arguing higher education’s value?

Indeed, although universities and staff are working hard to find new ways of engaging students and fostering community virtually, on-campus university life is sold to students as integral to higher education. This is evident even in marketing slogans like the University of Sheffield’s “A World-Class University—a Unique Student Experience” and London Business School’s “London Experience. World Impact.”

As for prospective international students like myself, the link between inflated fees and university experience appears especially stark. The tuition fee alone for an overseas student pursuing a 1-year master’s degree is enough to make me contemplate cremating my empty wallet and scattering the ashes to honour its sacrifice (which totals, in this case, £26,208). While I plan to begin socially-distanced study in the UK in October, I can understand why international students are balking at paying such high fees for degrees whose price tags reflect the pre-coronavirus university experience more than they do covering the costs of online learning.

Indeed, for all universities are facing unprecedented challenges, the coronavirus has made the reality of what they sell clearer than ever—and for many students, it is a raw deal.