The tuition fee debate is more complex than it looks—and comparisons with Europe don't always work. But there are things that the UK could address immediatelyby Martin Greenacre / January 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
When only half of student loans are likely to be repaid, it is clear that our tuition fee policy is broken. If rumours are to be believed, even some within the Tory party think so. Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell argue that there is a simple solution: scrap tuition fees. After all, university is either free or incredibly cheap in most European countries.
The French example
In France, free public universities seem an attractive prospect. For most undergraduate degrees, you only need to pay 184 euros of administrative fees each year. Higher education has long been considered a fundamental right across the channel. Until this year, French public universities could not select their students, requiring simply the equivalent of any A-levels.
In practice, however, this means university is often treated as a continuation of further education, and many students sleepwalk into university without giving it much thought.
The result is that just 27 per cent of French students complete their undergraduate degree in the usual three years. 30 per cent leave after their first year, compared to around 10 per cent of British students, meaning resources are even more stretched and class sizes even larger in first year.
The most ambitious (read: well-off) students often apply to private universities, leaving the rest behind, while public universities contend with increasingly scarce resources.
A different model
The French approach to university also has an effect on student life. Since public universities are largely homogenous, most students go to their local university. Like many British students, when I undertook an Erasmus year in France, I was surprised to see the student halls empty every weekend as everybody went home with bags of washing.
Nor was there the plethora of student societies I was used to. I could not help but feel that local students were missing out on what university had been for me: an opportunity to move somewhere new, try new things and meet people from all over the world.
Meanwhile, in Scotland…
Closer to home, proponents of free education often point to Scotland as proof that universities can survive without charging fees. Scottish and EU students receive free tuition at Scottish universities.
Yet, in order for this to be sustainable, there is a cap on the number of these students that can be admitted, so that fee-paying students from the rest of the UK and elsewhere can help to balance the books.
…and in Germany…
Germany may be heading towards a similar system. Tuition fees lasted less than a decade in the country and had disappeared in all German states by 2014.
They are able to maintain such a policy because there is less demand, since vocational courses and apprenticeships are much more established than they are here.
In Germany, around 27 per cent of young people gain a university degree, compared to 48 per cent in the UK. This has not prevented universities decrying a lack of funding, and last autumn, Baden-Württemberg state reintroduced tuition fees for non-EU students, while other regions could follow suit.
What the UK gets right
We should not forget that students from all over Europe come to study in the UK because of the quality of education on offer. According to the 2017 Times Higher Education university rankings, the UK has six of the seven best universities in Europe.
Amid concerns over the maintenance of European funding post-Brexit, it is important that our universities can continue to maintain the same standards.
How to really make things better
In November, the Sutton Trust education charity called for means-tested tuition fees. This could be one solution to the conundrum, and it has already been tested elsewhere.
At Sciences Po, where France’s five most recent presidents all studied, there are twelve fee levels for undergraduate degrees, ranging from zero to 10,250 euros per year, depending on household income.
But the varied European experiences show that fees are just one piece of the puzzle. Well-funded universities, student experience and funding daily life are all just as important.
If there is one thing that we can take from France, for instance, the heavily-subsidised student accommodation could have a greater impact for working-class students than the abolition of fees.
Unlike in the UK where universities usually own and manage their own accommodation for first year students, in France, each region has its branch of the “CROUS”, which offers rooms to students from lower-income families. The most basic rooms usually cost less than 200 euros.
According to the last National Union of Students (NUS)/Unipol Accommodation Costs Survey, the average rent for a self-catering, non-en suite room in purpose-built student accommodation in the UK in 2015-16 was £117.71 per week. Many find their maintenance loan does not fully cover their rent.
No easy answers
When the tuition fees debate becomes a simple opposition between free tuition and the increasingly extortionate fees which turn students into consumers, we let ideology simplify what is a complex issue, and we all lose out.