A report has just been published by the Higher Education Commission, demonstrating that the current UK tuition fee system is not sustainable in the long run. Despite the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, the size of student loans has not been augmented, whereas levels of student debt have. Although England requires the highest tuition fees in the whole of the European Union (EU), there are a few other countries in the EU that necessitate high tuition fees, such as Ireland, Italy, Hungary and the Netherlands.
In contrast, students in other EU member states such as Scotland and Germany do not require their university students to pay tuitions fees at all. In fact, the former First Minister of Scotland vowed that Scottish students will never be required to pay fees as entrance to university should be on the basis of a student’s academic ability, rather than their financial situation. However, whether or not eradicating tuition fees has actually aided financially disadvantaged students is still debatable. For EU states that do not ask for tuition fees, greater pressure has been put on their governments for funding. This could affect the quality of education available, and it could mean limited access to tertiary education as a result of the limited funding provided.
However, there are conflicting views about both systems. Ruth Thompson is highly critical of the English tuition and loan system, and believes that in the years to come students will not be able pay back their student loans. Today, the average debt would be around £44,035, and would be far lower under the previous system before the increase in tuition. However, reducing the tuition fees to £6,000 (which is still higher than the old system) would lead to a 1.72 billion funding gap for English universities. The increase in undergraduate fees has lead to a proportionate increase in postgraduate fees, which has meant enrolment for the latter has declined significantly. However, more students are enrolling as undergraduates, even if it does mean that they have to carry the burden of student debt. On the other hand, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has stated that the United Kingdom has created a more sustainable approach to funding, although it is contested as students need to pay back their student debt once they earn £21,000 a year, and in Ireland this is £15,795. Adrian Bailey even stated that the total level of debt on their heads would be 330bn by 2044. Although it has been suggested that a new model and approach be taken, there is no plan to change the system just yet. However, there is undoubtedly a financial pressure surrounding university, whether or not students pay tuition fees. Not paying can lead to limited investment, prohibiting some activities as most EU countries are in debt and may divert funds away from the education sector. On the other hand, for those from a less affluent background, high fees can make students much less likely to go to university or result in a debt that is for many impossible to pay back.