Tuition fees in the UK: What you need to know

by Dan Roberts

You rightly expect going to university to be a life-changing experience: the chance to meet new people, learn new things and open up new career paths. However, with the average debt for UK students who finished their courses in 2018 being £36,000, could it actually change your life negatively when it comes to your personal finances?

Although the costs for completing a degree course may seem staggering, most undergraduates qualify for student finance, so you can borrow the money you need. What’s more, student debt is not really like other debt, in as much as it’s unlikely that you’ll need to pay all of it back.

Contents

How much does going to university cost in the UK?

The costs of going to uni break down into tuition fees and living costs. While the costs for each quickly stack up, bear in mind that most UK (and European) universities offer three-year undergraduate courses and one-year master’s degrees, whereas these would take four years and two years respectively in the US, so your overall budget will be lower if you study in the UK.

Tuition fees

Tuition fees actually cover a lot of things besides teaching. They help cover the cost of university facilities (such as libraries and sports halls), course administration, services and staff, as well as bursaries for disadvantaged students. They will also include any essential field trips for your course, not forgetting your graduation ceremony at the end. Not everything related to your course is included, though – you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket for textbooks, printing, photocopying and any specialist materials you need. You’ll also need to pay for your laptop and software.

For home students, public universities in England can charge a maximum of £9,250 a year for an undergraduate degree.

Tuition fees can vary – even for courses that are quite similar – so check the websites of the universities you’re interested in for exact costs. Tuition fees also vary according to where you’re from. For home students, public universities in England can charge a maximum of £9,250 a year for an undergraduate degree. Unis in some other parts of the UK charge less (or nothing, in the case of Scotland) for students who already live in those regions or are from other EU nations besides the UK (this is changing, however – see the section on Brexit below). International students pay higher fees in all regions of the UK. Typically, they can expect to pay between £10,000 and £30,000 a year for an undergraduate degree course (but probably more than double this for a medical degree). The tuition fees payable in the UK for courses starting in 2020 can be summarised as follows:

Tuition fees by region for courses in 2020

Your home region Studying in England Studying in Wales Studying in Scotland Studying in Northern Ireland
England Up to £9,250 Up to £9,000 Up to £9,250 Up to £9,250
Wales Up to £9,250 Up to £9,000 Up to £9,250 Up to £9,250
Scotland Up to £9,250 Up to £9,000 £0 Up to £9,250
Northern Ireland Up to £9,250 Up to £9,000 Up to £9,250 Up to £4395
EU Up to £9,250 Up to £9,000 £0 Up to £4395
Rest of the world No maximum No maximum No maximum No maximum

What is the TEF and how does it affect tuition fees?

TEF stands for Teaching Excellence Framework, an assessment system for undergraduate teaching that awards gold, silver or bronze status to participating universities. Unis in England with a TEF award are allowed to charge the maximum for tuition fees of £9,250 a year for full-time undergraduate degrees, whereas those without can only charge up to £9,000. Note that the TEF only has an impact on tuition fees in England and not the rest of the UK.

What is the impact of Brexit on tuition fees?

Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (Brexit), there will be changes to the tuition fees for EU students. On 23 June 2020, the UK government announced that from August 2021 EU, EEA and Swiss nationals will no longer be entitled to ‘home fee’ status or financial support from Student Finance England for courses starting in the 2021-2022 academic year. Instead, they will pay the same fees as other international students to study in the UK. Those EU students already studying in the UK or entering higher education in 2020-21 will continue to pay home fees for the duration of their course; they will also be eligible to apply for settled status if they arrived before the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. The notable exception to this change in status for EU nationals is for Irish students – under special reciprocal arrangements, the right to study and to access benefits and services for Irish nationals in the UK will remain. Scotland is also changing the status of EU students starting courses in Scotland in 2021-22, who will now have to pay tuition fees.

Will my tuition fees increase?

History shows that tuition fees have risen steadily in recent years. Home students are protected by the cap that universities can charge (although that can change too), so it’s international students who often feel the financial pinch when unis need to raise their income.

History shows that tuition fees have risen steadily in recent years.

The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic and Brexit on the numbers of international students choosing to study in the UK is likely to leave universities in a bit of a quandary as they’ll be short of cash but reluctant to worsen the problem by raising charges for international students.

Cheapest university fees

With most universities charging the maximum allowed, many students won’t see any real benefit in shopping around for lower tuition fees – unless you’re a home student choosing to study in Scotland or Northern Ireland. For international students, however, it is worth doing your homework and shopping around when it comes to university fees.

Living costs

Unfortunately, the cost of going to university doesn’t stop with tuition fees – there are also your living costs to think about. Your main living cost will be your accommodation, but all your other expenses come under this heading too – that’s stuff like supermarket shopping, nights out, utility bills (electricity, water, gas and broadband), laundry, travel, mobile phone, gym or sports club membership and textbooks. Students in the UK typically stay in university accommodation – usually on campus – for their first year and then move into privately rented housing for subsequent years. Many universities offer a choice of self-catered and catered halls of residence, so you can deduct the cost of much of your food when budgeting if you’re opting for catered accommodation.

The NatWest index found that the most affordable UK city for students in 2019 was Cardiff, followed by Bristol, Leicester, Southampton and Manchester.

The cost of student accommodation varies considerably across the UK, with rent usually higher in city centres. According to the NatWest Student Living Index, the average monthly student rent in the UK in 2019 was £486, rising to £700 in London. Students also spent an average of £83.50 per month on supermarket shopping, toiletries and household items, while household bills swallowed up an average of £30.70 a month.

…the average monthly student rent in the UK in 2019 was £486, rising to £700 in London

The NatWest index found that the most affordable UK city for students in 2019 was Cardiff, followed by Bristol, Leicester, Southampton and Manchester. Don’t forget that you’ll be eligible for lots of student discounts with your National Union of Students (NUS) card, as well as through other schemes such as Student Beans and UNiDAYS – make the most of these, as the savings really do make a difference.

Can I afford to go to university?

The costs of a university education may seem daunting but there is a solution: student finance – which is funded by the government – enables most students to borrow what they need to go to university. Student finance consists of a Tuition Fee Loan to cover the cost of your course and a means-tested Maintenance Loan to cover your living costs.

Tuition Fee Loans

A Tuition Fees Loan allows you to borrow enough money to pay your course fees in full. It isn’t means-tested, so the amount you can borrow is not affected by your household income. The money is paid directly to the university and you won’t need to pay it back until after your course – and even then, only when your income is above a certain level.

For international students, student finance is only available for those who have lived in the UK for at least three years before starting their course.

If tuition fees go up, you’ll be able to borrow more to cover them – and, due to the repayments system, you won’t really even notice the higher debt that you’ll graduate with. For international students, student finance is only available for those who have lived in the UK for at least three years before starting their course.

Maintenance Loans

A Maintenance Loan is to cover living costs and how much you can get depends on your household income (for most students, this means how much your parents earn), where you study and where you live. The higher your household income, the less you can borrow. The maximum Maintenance Loan in England in 2020-2021 is £12,010 – but that’s only for those studying in London (and living away from home) whose household income is under £25,000.  The minimum Maintenance Loan for students in England is £3,410, which applies to students living at home who have a household income of £58,222 or more.

The higher your household income, the less you can borrow.

There’s a sliding scale between these two extremes and you can work out how much you’re able to borrow with the student finance calculator. Remember that these figures apply for England, so check what applies to you if you come from – or are studying in – another part of the UK. Maintenance Loans are paid in installments at the start of each term (but monthly in Scotland) – directly into your bank account. Bear in mind that you’ll receive slightly less in your final year, due to the fact that you’ll no longer be a student over the summer.

Eligibility for Student Finance

You’re eligible for student finance provided:

  • You’re a UK national (or have settled status) and have been living in the UK (or Channel Islands or Isle of Man) for three years before the start of your course
  • Your university is a recognised, publicly-funded one (or approved for public funding, if it’s a private institution)
  • You’re studying a recognised course full time and it’s your first higher education course.

How to apply for a student loan

You’ll need to apply to the student finance organisation in your home country, not only in your first year but also for each year of your course. Allow up to six weeks for your application to be processed. You can start your application in the spring before your course starts – you don’t need to wait for your place to be confirmed, so get started early.

When do I have to pay back the loan?

Student finance has to be paid back – with interest – once you graduate and your income is above a certain threshold. Repayments are taken automatically from your salary before you’re paid, so there’s no avoiding it!

Student finance has to be paid back – with interest – once you graduate and your income is above a certain threshold.

Crucially, however, student loans are written off after a period of time (around 30 years, but it varies by region across the UK) so it’s likely that you will only have to pay back a proportion of what you borrowed.

Other sources of funding

Although student finance for home students covers all tuition fees, the Maintenance Loan often falls short of the amount needed to cover your living costs. So, what other sources of income are out there?

Grants

Maintenance grants (which don’t have to be paid back) are no longer available to home students in England but are still available in other regions, depending on household income; students in Northern Ireland could get up to £3,475 a year, those in Wales at least £1,000 a year, and students in Scotland up to £2,000 a year.

If you’re disabled, you may be entitled to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA)

There are also grants or allowances if you are responsible for looking after someone else (such as your child) while you’re studying, again depending on household income. If you’re disabled, you may be entitled to the Disabled Students’ Allowance (DSA). In addition to government money, individual universities offer bursaries, as do some charities, local councils, professional bodies and even private companies. You’ll need to do the research and legwork but it’s worth the effort.

Scholarships

Although scholarships for UK students are mostly available at postgraduate level, some are offered for undergraduate courses. However, many scholarships to study in the UK are available for international students, and the British Council is a great source of information on what’s available. Be warned, though – competition for such scholarships is often intense.

Parental contributions

There’s always the good old ‘bank of Mum and Dad’! Joking aside, having parental support is a real asset when embarking on a university degree, so have a frank discussion about the likely costs, while being sensitive to what your folks can afford.

…the average parent/family contribution to a UK student during term time was £221.70 per month.

The Maintenance Loan is means-tested so the more your parents earn, the less you’ll get and the more the government expects them to cough up. According to the NatWest Student Living Index 2019, the average parent/family contribution to a UK student during term time was £221.70 per month.

Part-time work

If your parents can’t afford to help you out – and even if they can – taking a part-time job is a great option. There is often work available on campus – such as in the student bar or cafés – or elsewhere in the city. If you’re worried about work shifts affecting your studies, you can often earn enough over the holidays to supplement your income during term-time, allowing you to do that all-important socialising. You’re generally only a student once in your lifetime, so you need to make the most of it!


Avatar for Dan Roberts
Written by Dan Roberts
MD and Founder of Mystudenthalls.com

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