FactCheck: how much does it cost to educate a student?
University of Oxford submission to the Browne Review into higher education
With the publication of the Browne Review into university funding just a few hours away, the big debate in higher education is about how much (if anything) students should pay for their degree, how much a degree’s worth – something we’ve looked at on FactCheck before – and how much it costs. According to the Oxford estimate, it costs the university just over £16,000 per year to educate its students This breaks down into a teaching grant of £4,293 and an annual tuition fee of £3,225, with the difference being made up by the university from endowments etc.
The Russell Group of elite universities (of which Oxford is a member), has long argued that it should be allowed to charge its students more money but some – such as the university think-tank Million+ – warn that the higher cost would put off students from poorer backgrounds from applying to those institutions. With the Lib Dems having lost their battle for a graduate tax, and leaks from Lord Browne’s report suggesting higher tuition fees are on the way, the nub of the issues is simply, how much does it actually cost to educate a student?
Simple question. Massively complex answer.
There are two answers to this one – a very short one and an incredibly long one. The short one, courtesy of data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is that it costs £7,300 to educate the average student per year.
As for the long one, well here goes. We couldn’t find any figures that were more specific and independently verifiable than the broad estimate HEFCE gave us and even that’s got some caveats. The £7,300 is an average, across all subjects, and doesn’t include students’ contributions towards costs such as maintenance of university buildings and libraries or assorted admin fees. The figure quoted covers only teaching-related costs, so if a student is on a course that requires lab work – for example, chemistry – the costs would be much higher than this and higher still for subjects like medicine.
To support the cost of teaching, universities receive a standard unit of resource from HEFCE, together with income from tuition fees. The standard resource actually varies according to four bands: A – clinical medicine and dentistry, and veterinary science; B – lab-based subjects (sciences, pre-clinical medicine, etc.); C – subjects with a studio, laboratory or fieldwork element; and D – all other subjects.
But, within those categories, there are huge variations in cost from institution to institution. For example, HEFCE data seen by FactCheck shows that at Durham University, it costs about £4,776 per year to educate a student in, say, modern languages, whereas at Sheffield Hallam University, this figure shoots up to just over £7,440.
And this disparity is reflected across the board and there simply doesn’t appear to be a way accurately to compare costs between institutions meaning, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it is extremely difficult to fix a price to the education given at this level to each student. There is no way we can independently establish if Oxford’s figures are a fair and accurate reflection of how much it spends per student. It could reasonably point out that its teaching style of one-to-one tuition is more costly than other models and so would easily rack up the ££££s.
As for the argument that Russell Group universities should be allowed to charge more for their courses, as you can see by the example above, the HEFCE data revealed that in some cases, costs of educating students at non ‘elite’ institutions can in fact be much higher than those at Russell Group establishments.
As we cannot get an independently-assessed actual figure for how much it costs to educate every student at every university, the HEFCE estimate is about the closest FactCheck managed to get to a ballpark figure. The problem with coming up with a cost for educating a student is that because of, for example, the diversity of courses and the diversity of staffing costs, between institutions, any average calculation is going to be favourable to some (such as those who study lab subjects) and unfavourable to others (arts students whose main costs are books). So for this reason, we’re giving this a medium rating.