A graduation cap sitting on a pile of �10 notes.

Rising tuition fees: the cost of higher education

With more and more UK universities announcing they will be raising their 2012 tuition fees to the new £9,000 cap, concerns are growing on how much debt future graduates will shoulder.

The Universities of Manchester and Essex are the latest to announce that they will be setting the tuition fee for new undergraduates for 2012-13 at £9,000, following the Government's removal of the fees cap of £3,290 that previously existed. Their plans are subject to approval by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), which is expected to confirm all universities fees and fee access agreements in July this year. OFFA has also published new guidance setting out its expectations of what English universities need to do if they wish to charge tuition fees in excess of £6,000, which includes targeting financial support such as bursaries and fee waivers more tightly at the most disadvantaged students and participation in the new National Scholarship Programme.

Essex and Manchester join the likes of Durham, Cambridge, Exeter, Imperial, Oxford and Surrey who have all previously announced their intentions to charge up to the maximum. Fees will still be paid upfront by the Government and students will start to pay back the money once they start earning a salary of £21,000 (previously the threshold was set at £15,000). Maintenance loans will be available and will depend on household income.

How will the rise in fees affect students?

It is difficult for many students hoping to go to university in 2012 to predict exactly how the increase will affect them personally. For a start, not all universities have announced what level their fees will be set at. Initially the Government said £9,000 would be charged in exceptional circumstances, for instance for those with high teaching costs, although plenty of scepticism surrounded this notion. Also, we await the package of bursaries, fee waivers and scholarships that universities have pledged to be developing to ensure those from less well-off backgrounds aren't disadvantaged. Recently, the BBC asked accountants to work out how much three fictional students would have to pay back under the new system and one of the scary headline findings was that some graduates could end up paying back double their original student loans. The BBC found that a student borrowing £39,000 for a three-year course might end up paying back £83,000 in total cash.

As to how it may affect engineering and technical students is difficult to assess. The majority of universities we approached said it was too early to comment. And while UCAS said so far applications for engineering courses are showing an increase of four per cent compared to the same point last year, it’s too early in the 2011 cycle to provide a bigger picture and predict the effect that the fee change may have on applications to particular courses.

Will fees have an impact on applications to engineering and technology degrees?

The Sector Skills Council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies (Semta), says it will certainly be monitoring the effects of increased tuition fees but will have to wait for 2012 applications to start to see if they have any impact on student applications. Its chief executive, Philip Whiteman, says the introduction of tuition fees a few years ago, albeit at a lower level, had no adverse effect on student numbers. He adds that the teaching grant for STEM courses has not been reduced in the recent Government spending cuts (with the exception of mathematics) so apart from increased tuition fees engineering courses should not get more expensive for students.

"We believe the maintenance and growth of engineering degree courses will continue to depend on student demand rather than costs," he says. "For the universities where engineering is on the peripheral of their missions, they may well reconsider their positions following the severe cuts to the teaching grant for humanities etc; but again this will very much depend on student demand and if the current trend of increased demand for STEM degrees continues."

Postgraduate study or employment?

Clearly with many engineering students staying in education to study for Masters qualifications and beyond, increased tuition fees and subsequent debt is likely to be even more of a concern for those who want to enter the job market as qualified as possible. Semta reports that the vast majority of engineering students still read three-year Bachelor degrees and employers still recruit these types of graduates if they have achieved a good classification. It also says that many integrated Masters degrees (MEng) offer students the opportunity to graduate after three years with a Bachelor's degree if they do not want to incur the expense of another year at university to achieve the MEng degree. "Many of these types of engineering students undertake work experience after two years at university," says Whiteman. "Many get offered employment and just return to university for one final year to graduate as Bachelors followed by their employment offer."

Whiteman adds that universities understand that many employers want a mix of higher level knowledge and skills and have been developing and already delivering part-time and distance learning Masters degree courses: "So employed engineers with a first degree (Bachelors) can study and pay over a longer period of time to progress to Master's level and many employers pay the fees so their engineers can do this."

The future of postgraduate study fees is yet to be set in stone as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is carrying out a review looking into the issue of postgraduate study and how this will work under the new fees system. The findings of this work will highlight what the implications will be for students wishing to progress to postgraduate study.

Students will have to wait until later in the year to find out exactly where they will stand, and what support will be in place to help them.

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