Spinning Fees

Edinburgh University to become most expensive in Britain. Crumbs. (This is yesterday’s news – eg here and here – but, hey I was busy.) As I am an employee, I had better add that what follows is personal opinion and not to be construed as the stance of Edinburgh University etc – but actually what I have to say is about the Scotttish university situation in general anyway, not really about Edinburgh. And whats more, I do actually feel that Edinburgh University is getting a raw deal in press coverage. There has been a real attempt to put money aside so that anybody with talent can come.

Two days ago, all the academic staff got an email from the University announcing the reluctant decision to charge £9000. Later that evening doing me ironin’ in front of the box, there it was on the televisual news : shock horror Edinburgh most expensive. Of course several English universities have gone for £9000, but we have four year degrees. Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt have also announced £9000/year, but they have capped the total at £27,000. (First year free !!) I thought I should check the University web page and see what our own news story said. Err.. nothing there ?

Then I realised there was a related news story. The headline said “UK’s most generous bursary package”. If you click through to the story the second paragraph explains it was made possible by the decision to go for full fees. So this is the Harvard model – large fees for those who can afford it, coupled with a  commitment to seek out talent regardless of funding. This seems to me a perfectly respectable way of proceeding – if you can keep your reputation as high as Harvard’s. We are within hailing distance but not spitting distance I would say.

Anyway, that spin failed. The news stories the next morning were full of shock horror mega-expensive scandalising. Union guy Kirkpatrick is quoted as saying “…giving the signal that Edinburgh University is more interested in the money you can bring, as opposed to your academic ability” whereas of course our news story aim was just the opposite.

There are two hidden background rumbles. The first is that these are “indicative fees”. What they indicate is that the Scottish government has forced us into it, by insisting that Scottish students are completely free, and providing no subsidy for non-Scottish students. (Very different to Wales).  However the government position is not yet quite finalised, so this must be part of a rather public brinkmanship game.

The second rumble is about EU law. Standard Scottish University understanding is that we have to charge students from the rest of the EU the same as Scottish students – nothing –  but we are allowed to have a differential policy within the UK. There may well be legal challenges by English students. In the US, it is normal for public universities to charge smaller fees for in-state residents. If we see Europe as the United States of Europe, why can’t we do the same ? The answer staring us in the face is that say all EU students – whether German or English – get charged  say 6000/yr, but local subsidy allows Scottish-resident students to be charged say 2000/yr. I believe the Irish achieve something like this in a cunning fashion by distinguishing between “fees” and “service charges”.

Well. Dream on, I guess.

15 Responses to Spinning Fees

  1. telescoper says:

    There is a similar oddity in Wales, in that Welsh-domiciled students get the additional fees paid by the Welsh Assembly Government, as do non-UK EU students. Students from elsewhere in the UK, which is primarily England in the case of most Welsh unis, pay the full £9K.

    It’s s very strange system we’ve ended up with.

  2. Tony says:

    Ah, right. Thought you’d taken up the new exercise craze, Andy, and was complaining about the cost.

  3. Albert Zijlstra says:

    Will students with dual nationality pay half fees?

  4. Martin E. says:


  5. Ross Collins says:

    What about 5 year degrees (the equivalent of the 4 year degrees elsewhere in the UK)? Will their intake suffer due to the additional tuition fees and subsequent increased student debt? Will Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt effectively offer two years for free? If the 5 year degree is required for an academic career that pays less well, you’d imagine this will hurt academia even more in the long run…

  6. Nick Cross says:

    If the SNP are successful and get independence, then the universities will have to change their funding system again since English, Welsh and Northern Irish students will then be from other EU countries and cannot be disciminated in this way. I think the American model sounds very reasonable. Non-EU students are charged in this way already.

  7. Stewart Eyres says:

    But aren’t media misrepresentations such as this inevitable given the utter failure of government or anyone else to get across the fact that most people aren’t going to pay off most of the debt before it is written off. Which means fee waivers are only valuable to the government, while students benefit from bursaries, so Edinburgh has done the right thing by the people who matter but may be done in by the media. Albert – fees are based on residency not nationality, to which end Andy: got any jobs going?

  8. “So this is the Harvard model – large fees for those who can afford it, coupled with a commitment to seek out talent regardless of funding. “

    While this might be good for poor but talented folks, it is not a good model. It essentially allows those with money but no talent to buy that Harvard degree, while the poor with much more talent, effort, whatever (but not at genius level) end up even further down the scale.

    There has been much discussion of fees In the Dark. If I understand things correctly, they are not paid up front in the UK, but rather one has the corresponding debt when leaving, and this has to be paid back only if one earns enough later etc. So it’s not as bad as in the States—yet. However, once the high fees are in place, it is easier to tweak the system so that they have to be paid up front etc. Can there be any other reason for the fees? With the present system, they don’t actually generate any additional revenue.

    A few years ago, some neoliberal idiots (who were also in the government) in Germany got the idea that charging students (and we’re talking EUR 500 per semester or something like that; peanuts compared to fees elsewhere, but infinitely larger than the previous situation (0)) would bring extra money to the university. Cue the same discussions as in the UK except that in Germany one of the accomplishments we can be proud of is that we have effectively abolished the class system, aristocracy etc, so they were much more intense. Fortunately, one after the other the various states abolished these (moderate) fees.

    Even if one doesn’t have to pay the fee up front, it is not fair when poor folks, who have it worse anyway, graduate with more debt than the children of rich folks.

    Either the student doesn’t really pay the fee, and one can just do without them, or he does, and poor but talented folks will be kept away. We all know people who wouldn’t be in academia today if they had had to pay fees.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    So it’s not as bad as in the States–yet.

    Actually, I think it is worse, Andy, at least in some respects. In the US system, there are often fee waivers offered to students based on parental income, which seem fully justified as a way to give access to excellent talent whose parents would never be able to afford the up-front full fees. In the UK system, however, the fees are not paid up front by the family, but many universities are offering fee waivers to those from low-income backgrounds, anyway, funded out of the total tuition pot. This means that, for example, two students receive identical university educations, which will hopefully provide them both with the same access to the same well-paid graduate jobs, yet 20 years down the line, when surely what their parents earned 20 years ago should be a complete irrelevance, one of them may still be paying for not only his own education, but the other person’s as well.

    • You are overlooking the fact that the student with the rich parents will have had many other advantages in his life up until then. Waiving the fee for the student from the poorer background might help a bit, but it’s a drop in the bucket.

      You are also assuming that a university education leads to a high salary. That is not always the case, and even if it were, we shouldn’t see that as the main factor. There is the danger that we might soon know the price of everything but the value of nothing. 😦

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Actually, I didn’t ignore either of those points.

        Of course those from wealthier backgrounds have had many advantages. That’s why we look carefully at the backgrounds of all our applicants in admissions decisions — a B grade from someone living on a sink estate and attending a poor school is clearly a far greater achievement than a B grade from a child of wealthy parents who have paid for individual tuition. That’s why I fully back up-front support such as bursaries, to give everyone the opportunity to attend university. However, the notion that who is disadvantaged will never have changed 20 years down the line is plainly ridiculous. Yet, under the system being introduced, we have locked that in at the point where the students start university, rather than on the basis of their income year-on-year. Such a system sends exactly the wrong message if you are trying to raise aspirations, that there is a societal view that even 20 years in the future those from poorer backgrounds should not have the expectation to be on a level with those from richer ones.

        And I never made any assumption that a university education leads to high salary. The assumption I made was that a good degree leads to career opportunities that, 20 years after completing university, do not depend much on what the students’ parents were earning 20 years before. Again, the message being sent by fee waivers is a very strange when it comes to looking at the salaries of different career options, as someone on a lower income can end up paying for the education of a class mate on £100k per year, simply because of their parents’ income 20 years earlier.

        A more rational approach would be a straightforward graduate tax, but since the primary purpose of this exercise seems to be to keep the cost of higher education off the books so it does not count as public expenditure, that probably isn’t going to happen.

      • “A more rational approach would be a straightforward graduate tax, but since the primary purpose of this exercise seems to be to keep the cost of higher education off the books so it does not count as public expenditure, that probably isn’t going to happen.”

        Indeed. I think all university (and below) education (including living costs of students) should be paid for out of tax money. Any government which says that this is not a good use of tax money is sending a very disturbing message.

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