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More European comparisons: fees

April 9, 2014

A bit more on cross-European comparisons.  Although the most useful comparisons avoid looking at single factors in isolation, this post is about fees,  because the Education and Culture Committee is currently thinking about how the UK compares on this issue with other parts of Europe, as it examines what could happen to Scotland’s  system of free tuition.

Joan McAlpine MSP, treading with care, got it pretty much right:

 “It is RUK, or rather—because I know that there are different systems in Wales and Northern Ireland—England that is completely out of step with Europe in terms of the fee level. Is that correct?” 

George Adam MSP was a bit wider of the mark, however, with:

“the country next door is, unlike a lot of other European countries, charging tuition fees for students”.

As this useful briefing note from Eurostudent shows (look for the one called “Impact of Fees” in the list) the principle of a student fee/contribution of some sort is accepted across higher education in Europe as the norm  (and is also common in the OECD more generally: see Table B5.1  Education at a Glance). [Update: the data omits no-fee (mostly) Scotland, Iceland and Greece, but also Northern Ireland, Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Belgium,  which all charge fees, as well as most states in former Yugoslavia and Ukraine, whose fee policy I can’t quickly establish.]

[Update: fuller data from Eurostudent quoted here shows that “around 60 % of all Bachelor students in cross-country average actually pay fees. In Italy, Turkey, Ireland, England/Wales, The Netherlands, Portugal, Croatia, the Slovak Republic, Switzerland and France at least 75 % or more of the Bachelor students are subject to paying fees. In Italy, England/Wales, The Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland, is the cover ratio (almost) 100 %. In the case of 6 countries – Germany, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Malta, Austria and Romania – the share of Bachelor students paying fees is below 50 %.”  Though the position in Germany has since shifted, even taking account of the no-fee countries not included, it must still be the case that the majority of students in Europe are in fee-paying systems, even if not all of them pay fees.]

It turns out that the Nordic countries, and Scotland, are unusual in having zero fee regimes for their domestic students, though in Germany fee regimes have also lately been reversed.  Even then,  around 10% of Norwegian students go to private institutions which charge fees (loan-assisted, as in the UK) of up to £7,000,  while all students are expected to a pay a small “semester fee” (£30-£70) each semester towards student services.  This must explain why  the briefing note shows that tuition fees accounted for 6% of Norwegian students’ upfront expenditure, averaged across the student population as a whole. [Update: more detailed figures from Eurostudent showed that, on top of fees, Norwegian students devoted  8% of their spending to  ‘other regular study costs’ , the highest share in any of the many European countries surveyed. This covers expenditure on training, private lessons and further education.]

The figures in the note are from the period 2008-11, at which point fees in the rest of the UK were around £3,500 a year,  still generally higher than elsewhere. So it’s surprising at first sight that tuition fees accounted for a lower share of regular student spending in “England and Wales” than in 4 other EU countries covered, at average of 17%  across the (undergraduate, EU) student population in the UK.

Above England and Wales in this list are Finland’s near-neighbours,  the Baltic states, which all charge fees [Update and correction: Turkey is also higher, but Estonia is just below] . Latvia turns out  to have some students paying fees around £9,000, if they study medicine.  Otherwise, fees there are more in the range £1,500 to £3,000.  In Lithuania, they are between around £800 and £4,500 a year. In Estonia, they are £1,200 to £4,750.

The Republic of Ireland is also above England and Wales here.  With a headline student contribution of around £1,200 at the time (it will be c£2,300 in 2014-15), tuition fees accounted for an average 22% of student expenditure.  This probably  reflects that those students liable for the student contribution had to find the money upfront themselves.  There’s no equivalent to the UK’s fee loans. In the Netherlands,  a headline fee of around £1,500 translated into 15% of students’ day-to-day expenditure.

The low(er than you might expect) UK figure almost certainly reflects that most students defer their fees through the use of a loan and only a few  pay upfront in cash. If so, it is possible that the increase in the fee cap to £9,000 may have little impact on where the UK sits in this particular chart.

Apart from a  minority of students in a few countries,  it remains true that the headline level of fees now charged in England (and the devolved administrations for border-crossers) is unusually high within Europe, and exceptional for a whole system.  That – rather than the principle of fees –  is of course the more relevant point for the debate about  future cross-border movement.   Even then, what access rUK students would have in future to living cost support if they study cross-border is also salient (see here) and only lightly touched on by the Committee so far.

More generally, as the briefing note shows, there’s more to the debate about the impact of tuition fees on students than a comparison of headline charges.  And as the OECD and Eurostudent both argue, there’s much more to comparing student finance systems than comparing fees.   Both have produced useful figures which help look at student finance systems in the round.   More on the useful material they have produced on this theme to come.




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