May vows to fix ‘broken’ tuition fees system

Future plans: From old and modern universities to apprenticeships: the choice can be dizzying.

Is university overrated? Tuition fee cuts could be coming as the PM launches a funding review. But some claim students need better alternatives to university — not just cheaper degrees.

For some, failing to get a degree turns out to be rather academic. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University to set up Microsoft. He is now the richest man in the world.

But for many young people today, deciding whether university is the route to opportunity, or an expensive waste of time, is an increasingly difficult call. With average student debt in England now over £50,000, more students are beginning to wonder if going to university is really worth it.

On Monday the prime minister, Theresa May, responded to these concerns by launching a review of tuition fees. She criticised the current system for being “one of the most expensive in the world” and claimed that often "the level of fees charged do not relate to the cost or quality of the course".

However, unlike Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who wants to abolish tuition fees altogether, May still insists that students who benefit from university “should contribute directly towards the cost of it".

And some clearly benefit from their studies. Research found that, on average, graduates earn more during their lifetime than non-graduates: £250,000 more for women, and £170,000 for men. Those with degrees are also more likely to join Bill Gates in the billionaire club.

But earnings vary depending on what and where students study. For example, those with degrees in creative arts tend to earn as much as those without them. Research also found that graduates in STEM subjects earn up to 20% more than other graduates.

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has signalled that changes in tuition fees could reflect this imbalance, with arts degrees possibly being made cheaper.

But others believe we should think beyond universities altogether. Labour MP Frank Field has urged students to “think twice” about pursuing a degree. He claimed that for some, vocational apprenticeships will lead to better prospects “in terms of pay and happiness”.

So is university overrated?

School’s out

Of course, say some. Courses should be useful for the students and for society. Too often universities fail on both counts. What is worse is a culture which pressures students to take on degrees when vocational routes would be better for them. If we value the alternatives to university more as a society, young people will feel comfortable taking these options.

Not so fast, others say. For hard-working students from modest backgrounds, university opens doors to high-flying careers that would otherwise be shut. Furthermore, we must think less in terms of economic outcomes. Universities offer the chance to spend time exploring worlds of ideas ignored in the plodding reality of daily life. This is an experience we must treasure and, above all, share.

You Decide

  1. Is university worth it?
  2. Should education be mainly about improving career prospects?


  1. What do you want to be when you grow up? You might have more than one idea. Discuss these ideas with your classmates. Do any of you have similar ambitions? Do you think university is the best way to achieve your goals, or are there other options?
  2. Do some research on apprenticeships, using the resources in Become An Expert to start you off. What are some of the advantages to these programmes? What are the disadvantages? Do you think they constitute a good alternative to university degrees?

Some People Say...

“The university brings out all abilities, including incapability.”

Anton Chekov

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
In 2017 the number of students applying for university in the UK declined by 4% compared to the previous year. Applications from EU students to the UK also fell by 5% over the same period. Meanwhile between 2010 and 2016 almost three million young people in Britain enrolled on apprenticeships.
What do we not know?
We do not know what the specific outcome of the tuition fee review will be. Fees are expected to be cut, but it is not clear if they will be reduced for all subjects and by how much. The interest rate on student loans is also expected to fall by an, as yet, unspecified amount. The review is expected to take a year.

Word Watch

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Tuition fees for UK students are currently capped at £9,250 per year; however, most students also take out additional loans to cover living costs.
The world
Other European nations have much cheaper tuition fees. In France the average undergraduate degree costs around €200 per year, whilst Germany offers free tuition.
By Ian Walker and Yu Zhu for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Billionaire club
A study of the Forbes top 100 billionaire rich list over a 20 year period found that 76% of those listed had degrees.
According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
According to research led by the Hay Group.
Some have criticised this plan as it may drive students away from comparatively expensive science and engineering degrees.
Courses which give on-the-job training, and often pay a salary. However, some have criticised certain programmes for paying salaries too small to benefit students from low-income backgrounds.


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