Tuition fees from UK students fail to cover costs of undergraduate courses at UCL

University College London and other institutions must rely on fees from international students, provost says

Tuition fees from British students alone fail to meet the costs of undergraduate courses at University College London, its provost has revealed, forcing UCL and other universities to rely on fees from international students.

Michael Spence, UCL’s provost, said no undergraduate courses at his university could be funded by domestic fees of £9,250 a year, with UCL having to spend up to £90m extra last year to support teaching during the pandemic.

UCL recently became the UK’s largest mainstream university, with 42,000 students, and is celebrating its rise to 9th place overall in the 2022 Guardian University Guide published on Saturday.

Spence, who joined UCL from his previous post as vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, said the government in England should not follow Australia in using international student fees to fund universities.

“It’s really important that the UK doesn’t go down the Australia route in that way,” Spence said. “Australia digs things out of the ground and grows things and has clever people. England only has clever people, it doesn’t have anything else. So making sure that innovation and research are protected and fostered is really important.”

The government is expected to make changes to higher education funding in England as part of the comprehensive spending review due to be published next month. Many in the sector are bracing for possible cuts to tuition fees for undergraduates, along with other restrictions aimed at reducing the number of school-leavers taking what education secretary Gavin Williamson regards as “low value” courses.

Spence said: “We would be exposed to an absolute drop in the undergraduate fee. There is no course at UCL where the undergraduate fee covers the cost of providing the course. We’ve just had the maths done by an independent firm.

“So we’re already supporting the education of British undergraduates with both international student and postgraduate student fees.”

Despite the success of remote learning during the pandemic, Spence said UCL needed in-person teaching to return in autumn. He said: “We are deeply committed to the notion that the university is an embodied community, a place where students learn from one another, as well as learning from the people who teach them. That needs to happen, face-to-face.”

Spence’s arrival as provost has coincided with further expansion at UCL, after enrolling record numbers of undergraduates last year, overtaking the University of Manchester as the largest campus, and the construction of a new site, UCL East, near the 2012 Olympic stadium in Stratford.

UCL has also soared in recent international league tables, including for quality of research, and this year returns to the top 10 in the Guardian’s guide aimed at undergraduates.

Matt Hiely-Rayner, the statistician who compiled the data, said UCL’s performance was a reflection of its strength in depth, with 22 of its subjects ranked in the top 10 nationally. This year there were particular improvements in economics, computer science and mathematics, as well as English and politics.

Overall, Oxford retains its top spot nationally, with Cambridge moving into second and displacing the University of St Andrews, which falls to third.

The effects of the pandemic can be seen in the slump in student satisfaction at many universities. Respondents to the 2021 national student survey expressed deep dissatisfaction with their undergraduate experience, the worst results since the survey began in 2005.

Hiely-Rayner said: “The whole sector’s 2021 results were awful. Everything dropped on average but for some institutions it was more like 20 percentage points. There were relatively few good news stories in it all. It’s a reflection on how universities coped with the pandemic.”


Richard Adams Education editor

The GuardianTramp

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