Frankly, the situation for UK graduates can sometimes seem pretty bleak. Since 2012, tuition fees have trebled and are set to rise further with inflation, maintenance grants have been abolished, and the price of halls has increased dramatically.
According to the Sutton Trust, English graduates face higher debts on graduation than American, Canadian, Australian students, as well as those from New Zealand.
With all of these bleak statistics in mind, it is still true that the UK has a strong reputation for its higher education institutions. The most recent World University Rankings for 2016 found that the UK is the second best nation to study in, at university level globally.
However, there are also concerns that these high rankings could slip in the future as a result of Brexit, with a third of international students surveyed in August by Hobsons, a student recruitment agency, saying that they would be less likely to study in the UK since Brexit.
With all of this debt and uncertainty in mind, it begs the question, is university worth the money? I spoke to recent UK graduates and asked them whether their degrees were worth all of this debt.
1) How much did you pay for your degree, and would you say it was worth the money?
Declan graduated with a BA in Ancient History from the University of Birmingham.
‘If you take into account living costs as well as fees, the overall cost was around £38,500. My degree was not worth the money I paid for it.
‘My friends and I used to joke that we were paying £9000 a year for the most expensive library card of our lives! The simple fact of the matter is that, on a course with 100+ students, at a great, wealthy institution, it simply does not cost £9000 to actually run the course – in terms of both purchasing course materials and paying the wages of the lecturers.’
Katie* graduated with a BSC in Computer Science, also at the University of Birmingham.
‘My course was good value for money as there was a lot of contact time throughout the degree. In fact I got more of my money’s worth by third year, as it was increasingly 1-1 teaching. I did also take advantage of all the music tuition, careers services and facilities.’
2) How much do you think people should be prepared to pay for a university degree, and do you think this should differ based on which university you are attending?
Charlotte graduated from the University of St Andrews with a first class undergraduate degree in English.
‘I am not opposed to the idea of tuition fees per se, but the new (and increasing) fees are extortionate and disproportionate. The idea that universities could or should charge more depending on how ‘good’ they are is very worrying.
‘I can already see a huge problem with elitism and snobbery in the UK Higher Education sector, and this would do nothing to combat it. It would mean that privileged students who are more likely to achieve higher A Levels and could afford the top fees would go to the highest ranked universities, and this would exacerbate the class and education divisions.’
Nailya is an international student studying for a PhD in History at the University of Cambridge.
‘I think that university education should be free at the point of delivery, so no prepayment should be required. I am not opposed to the UK ‘loans’ system, I really wish I had the option, but I don’t as an international student.
‘I think that the price of university can depend on its reputation and thus the earning power it gives, but that it should not necessarily be the case. Ideal fees for me would be around 5-6k per year.’
3) How could universities help students feel like their degrees are ‘good value for money’?
James graduated with a BSC in Biomedical Science from the University of Sheffield.
‘They could provide a breakdown of how our fees are spent, or try to make an economic case for attending university. Although when you add the cost of being out of work for a minimum of three years to what is apparently going to be ~£100,000 in debt, this may be difficult for them.’
‘I don’t think this is the university’s job. It should be government’s job to not allow these silly prices. In my view it’s unlikely a university would try to outwardly rip off their students. The bottom line is, it just costs what it costs to run a course, it’s not up to the university to justify it.’
4) How important was the financial element in your choice to attend a university?
Emily graduated with a first in English with Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham.
‘The financial element didn’t play highly in my decision to go to university – and not because I am well off! The word ‘loan’ is misleading and scares a lot of people off. Your student loan is nothing like a regular loan – if you can’t afford to pay it back, you never will. It’s like a graduate tax – once you can afford to pay it back, a small percentage comes out of your earnings before you even see it.
‘So for me, it wasn’t a question of can I afford to pay 27 grand or afford to take out a 27 grand loan, it was simply ‘am I happy to have an extra tax on my paycheck for 30 years to pay for my degree and the answer was yes!’
5) Do you think you can get by without a university degree in 2016, and would you advise young people to apply for university?
‘The government might argue that the number of people attending university hasn’t declined since the fee increase, but I expect that is due to the amount of pressure put on young people, that a degree is vital to a successful career.
‘The financial burden does put off many students, however, and we should be concerned that this will usually be young people who should be aspiring to attend university. I would still encourage everyone to go to university but I am aware of my relative economic privilege in being able to say that.’
*Some names have been changed for this article.