The UK Tuition Fees System

The U.K tuition fees system has undergone significant changes in recent years, in ways that many feel have narrowed rather than expanded opportunity. As of 2012, 64 universities now claim the right to charge the maximum allowable – that is £9,000 per year, per student.

Any university wanting to charge above £6,000 pounds a year will have to make an access agreement with the government. These agreements essentially provide for bursaries and other strategies to widen access to lower-income students. It was recently revealed that Cambridge University, at a cost of 7 million, agreed to a goal of 61-63 percent intake from state schools.

A potted history of tuition fees

Tuition fees are, gallingly for the prospective university student, a relatively recent development, arriving with New Labour in 1998. Initially set at just a £1,000 a year the new fees were tied to the rate of inflation. The change generated controversy but the fees remained unchanged until 2006 when they were raised again, allowing universities to charge up to £3,000 pounds a year. Finally, the publishing of the 2010 Lord Browne review brought about the most recent and perhaps most radical changes, amid protests, widespread education cuts and a spectacular policy u-turn from the Liberal Democrats, who retained the abolition of tuition fees as part of their party platform.

New loans for new Fees

£9,000 is, obviously, out of a reach for most students so a new loan system has come into effect. It is possible to borrow a loan to cover the maximum amount – this is done through SFE (Student Finance England). Administration is minimal under this system – the money for fees never enters your account but goes straight to the university. Though this immediately raises the specter of enormous student debts it should be noted that the amount you have to repay is heavily tied to how much you are able to earn once you leave university. In a way, it’s more helpful to think of the tuition fee loan repayment as a graduate tax – the more you earn, the more you will have to repay.


The threshold at which you need to begin to pay your loans back has been raised – from £15,000 a year to £21,000 a year. Below this level, you don’t need to worry about repayments. The repayment system is extremely progressive – a student who goes on to earn £22,000 a year will only have to repay £90 of his loans in that same year. If you lose your job and have to take work that pays less, your repayments will adjust accordingly. A student who earns, say, £31,000 pounds per year will have to repay £900 of his loans.

In practice, this higher threshold means that many will have debts for a long time, which they will slowly pay off. Repayments are, in many cases, less than under previous tuition fee systems but will eventually total more, if, of course, the graduate is earning enough to even initiate repayments.

Regional differences

Northern Irish students pay tuition fees of up to £3,575 per year.

Wales has adopted a similar tuition fee model to England – with fees of up to £9,000. But fees can be paid for with loans and a grant, the latter is available to all students and can make up £5,245 of the total fee (the grant is proportional to the fee) – this applies no matter where you study in the U.K.

Scottish students pay no fees whatsoever and further financial support may be available for living costs.

Tuition fees and the prospective student

For the prospective student it’s important to look beyond the scary numbers and see that a university education is still attainable and essentially free at the point of entry. Incurring huge debts which will, in many cases, never be repaid is not a pleasant thought but the system is progressive – you have to be earning a lot before you start paying a lot.