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Are fees for higher education getting higher?

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AR011032 09/2017

This month, over two million 1 under-graduate and post-graduate students will either return to their courses or begin their higher education studies.

The cost of financing further education has become one of the most important personal finance topics for parents and young adults alike, particularly since the introduction of course fees and student loans.

How much will Higher education cost?

There are three main elements of cost that need to be considered:

  1. Tuition fees

  2. Accommodation costs

  3. Living expenses

Tuition fees

Tuition fees were first introduced across the UK in 1998, set at up to £1,000 per academic year. Since then, fees have escalated rapidly and differences have emerged between the different countries within the UK. Devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now set their own tuition fees policy.

Where you live determines how much you pay

Fees now depend upon where the student’s home country is and in which country they are studying. The following table 2 sets out the university tuition fee structure for 2017/18:


Student's home country

Studying in England

Studying in Scotland

Studying in Wales

Studying in Northern Ireland (2016*)


Up to £9,250

Up to £9,250

Up to £9,000

Up to £9,250


Up to £9,250

No fee

Up to £9,000

Up to £9,250


Up to £9,250

Up to £9,250

Up to £4,046

Up to £9,250

Northern Ireland

Up to £9,250

Up to £9,250

Up to £9,000

Up to £3,925


Up to £9,250

No fee

Up to £4,046

Up to £3,925






*Note: 2017 fee levels for Northern Ireland have still to be set, table shows 2016/17 fees

Although the fee schedule shows the maximum tuition charge a university can levy, they are free to charge less if they wish. However, over three-quarters of all English universities charged the maximum amount in 2015/16.

Fees are expected to rise annually in line with inflation, so budget for increases over the length of the course.

The financial benefit of studying at a home country university for Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish students looks like a no-brainer. But sometimes that may be easier said than done.

For example, Scottish universities receive about £7,000 4 per student from the Scottish Government. However, an English, Welsh or Northern Irish student studying at a Scottish university will pay £9,250 whilst non-EU international students could be paying twice as much.

That means non-Scottish students are more financially attractive to Scottish universities.

In order to make the numbers add up, ‘free’ places are limited. If you want to study in a competitive subject area such as medicine, dentistry or veterinary, then studying outside of your home country may be the only choice available.

In addition, your home country may not offer the best courses in your chosen area of study. For example, arts and music students may prefer London to Edinburgh, despite the additional cost involved. 

Accommodation costs

Students have a wide choice of accommodation

  • Halls of residence. Purpose-built student flats and houses, some of which provide meals, and are owned or operated by the university.

  • Privately rented flats in developments where all tenants are students. These are owned by private companies that specialise in student accommodation.

  • Privately rented flats and rooms available on the wider residential property rental market.

Prices for halls of residence vary across the country with universities such as Dundee offering an en-suite room in self-catered halls from £4,750 rising to £5,615 for the best rooms. Prices for similar accommodation at University College London start at £5,288 rising to £9,186 for the most expensive room of this type.

The different costs of living

The prices shown above are for term time only – usually a period of 39-41 weeks from September to the following June. Some student accommodation is available for 50 weeks a year; expect to pay roughly 25% more than the 39-week prices.

Don’t expect privately rented student accommodation to be significantly cheaper; in fact, the opposite is likely to be the case. The going-rate in London ranges from around £7,000 to £13,000 for 39 weeks’ accommodation in your own en-suite room. Your own studio flat in one of these purpose-built student housing developments could cost a whopping £27,000 for 50 weeks. 

Privately rented flats can sometimes offer the cheapest accommodation but may be situated further away from the university or in a less desirable area of town. For example, two-bedroom flats in central Dundee start at around £400 per calendar month. Two students sharing such a flat would pay just £2,000 each for 10 months’ rental.

However, private rented accommodation can sometimes be considerably more expensive than halls of residence or private student accommodation. For example, a two-bedroom flat near Kings Cross station in London can cost upwards of £1,600 per calendar month meaning that two students sharing would be paying £8,000 each for 10 months’ rental. In some cases, renting a room near Kings Cross can cost as much as £1,000 a month.

When budgeting, a reasonable assumption would be that accommodation costs will be somewhere between £3,000 and £10,000 a year depending upon which university you study at.

As expected, catered accommodation costs are more expensive. For example, a self-catered en-suite room at Manchester University will cost around £5,500 with a similar catered room costing about £7,500 (41 weeks in both cases). This translates to a daily cost of just £7 a day for food, which may be difficult to beat even if you make your own sandwiches and pasta.

Whilst catered halls appear to make perfect financial sense – eat as much as you want for £7 a day – they don’t suit every student.

Some students, having signed up for catered accommodation, find that they prefer to eat out for a variety of reasons; they don’t like the food, they aren’t close to their halls at meal times, or the halls don’t offer enough variety.

On the other hand, sporty students that need to consume 5,000 calories a day may find that catered halls provide the best option, particularly if they are not fussy eaters.

So, before signing up for catered halls, make sure that you are going to eat there the majority of the time. Otherwise, what may look like a bargain in advance could well end up as money down the drain.

More accommodation tips

  • Student halls may not suit tidy peace-loving students who like an early bed. This is particularly true in first year when many students experience freedom from their parents for the first time, and party well into the small hours, even during the week. Once the contract for halls has been signed, it is very difficult to back out, even if the student ends up moving out before the end of term.

  • Sharing a room with another student in a twin room will result in lower costs, but you may not get to choose who you live with.

  • A room with a shared bathroom is normally cheaper than a room with an en-suite. But be aware, other students’ hygiene standards may not match your own.

  • If you live close to the university, you could continue to live at home. Whilst financially, this has many attractions, tensions are likely to arise between you and your parents, whilst students may find it more difficult to forge new friendships.

  • If renting a private flat or a room in a private flat, watch out for scammers, particularly if the room is advertised on free listings sites like Gumtree or Craigslist.

  • When deciding on accommodation, also consider issues such as location, safety and security. Plus check out the wifi speed, it could be essential for studying as well as relaxing with your favourite shows on Netflix.

Living expenses

Whilst the cost of fees and accommodation may sound steep, it doesn’t stop there. There is also the cost of day-to-day living expenses to think about.

Like accommodation, living expenses vary from city to city.

Not only is the price of a pizza more expensive in London than it is in Liverpool, the cost of getting around a large city like London is also costlier than, say, St Andrews where you can cover the whole town and campus on foot (or bike). A Zone 1-2 student Oyster Card for London costs about £90 a month (£920 a year).

Make a realistic budget to cover the cost of:

  • Food

  • Travel

  • Nights out

  • Clothes

  • Books and other study materials

  • Laundry/toiletries      

Adding all these day-to-day costs up, you are likely to end up with a budget of somewhere between £3,000 and £7,000 a year.

And the total bill? Unless you are a Scottish student living at home, prepare to spend about £20,000 a year on tuition fees, accommodation and living expenses.

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