Scotland’s top universities are taking a massive gamble by charging their English students £36,000 for a standard degree
What makes the Scottish universities think they are worth the money? Edinburgh and St Andrews universities have announced that they will be charging English students £36,000 for a standard degree.
This makes them the most expensive places to study in the UK. In cheap Cambridge, the best university in the world according to the Quacquarelli Symonds World Rankings, you can get an equivalent degree for only £25,000.
Will the best and brightest from the rest of the UK come to cold northern cities where they will be sitting in lecture theatres next to Scottish – and even European Union – students who will be paying nothing? Can the quality of higher education be that much better in Scotland?
The National Union of Students is outraged at what it claims is Scottish universities ‘cashing in’ on English students – financing higher education in Scotland by slapping an educational poll tax on English undergraduates. It will create an educational apartheid, in which English students could be priced out of coming to Scotland.
Now, I must declare an interest since I am rector of the University of Edinburgh and although I regret the charges, I can understand – sort of – why they are happening. The average cost of one year of university teaching is about £9,500 but this masks variations. For example, medicine is more expensive.
In Scotland, students study for four years for their degrees, instead of three, so the cost of teaching an undergraduate is £36,000. Even at that level, the university says it is still subsidising teaching by taking funds away from research. Because of the Scottish Government’s policy on free university tuition, Edinburgh will no longer receive a subsidy for English students. If it charged less than £9,000 a year, the quality of education would suffer.
Other universities in Scotland, such as Aberdeen, seem more relaxed about this. They are charging students £27,000 for a four-year degree on the grounds that English students should not have to pay a surcharge for crossing the border.
Also, Edinburgh somewhat undermines its case by saying that a large proportion of the fees will go to paying bursaries to English students from poor backgrounds. If it can hand much of it back, why does it claim that £9,000 a year is essential to meet tuition costs?
I believe this is a move towards a US system of higher education, where fees are set high and large numbers of able students from poor backgrounds are offered free ‘needs blind’ entry on merit alone.
My belief – and I emphasise that this is only my opinion – is that the Russell Group of leading UK universities, which includes Edinburgh, want to be classed alongside the US Ivy League universities, which charge the market rate for degrees. I suspect that Oxford and Cambridge will now press for parity with Edinburgh and St Andrews.
This is where it becomes political. I’m not sure that middle-class families in Scotland or Britain wish to introduce the US model. Moreover, I’m not sure that English students rate Scottish universities that highly.
In fact, a lot are wondering if university education is worth a debt of £27,000.
Several English universities, which wanted to charge £9,000 a year, are thinking again. Scottish universities have taken a huge gamble. If it fails, we might see leading Scottish institutions engaged in a price war with England – a race to the bottom in higher education.