Is a British university degree really worth it any more?

We run the rule over UK higher education, as school leavers prepare for their A-level results

How many UK universities are there?

There are about 140 universities in the UK. It depends on your definition of a university: if it stretches to any public institution with degree-awarding powers, then the number rises to 164, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) data. A small number of private providers can also award degrees.

How many students go to university in the UK?

In the 2017-18 academic year, there were 2.3 million students in higher education, which is just over 3% of the UK population. Some 57% of these students were women. The proportion of UK students from minority ethnic backgrounds increased by four percentage points over five years, from 20% in 2013-14 to 24% in 2017-18.

University enrolments have risen steadily since 2015, when the government lifted the cap on student recruitment to increase competition. The system is now driven by demand as institutions scramble to attract students each year.

student numbers - universities

How many freshers will there be this autumn?

As of July, a record 275,520 young people applied to university through Ucas for undergraduate courses starting in 2019. That’s an increase of 1% on this time last year, despite a 1.9% dip in the country’s population of 18-year-olds.

The upward trend is expected to continue as the 18-year-old population rises. The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) thinktank recently predicted that universities will need to provide at least 300,000 more places by 2030 to meet demand.

As for mature students, entry rates have declined by half since 2012, particularly in part-time and non-undergraduate courses. More than 1.3 million students in the UK are over 21 years old.

Factbox of how many UK students come from overseas

More than 40,000 overseas students could face difficulties applying for visas this September after the process was outsourced to the French IT services company Sopra Steria, which has received complaints about delays and high appointment costs.


Are all the universities public?

No university in the UK is completely publicly funded. The student loans system requires students to pay for all or some of their degree after they graduate. Repayments are deducted as a percentage of their salary after they start earning £25,000, and the outstanding balance is written off after 30 years. As such, the government will effectively pay for some of a graduate’s degree, though how much depends on their lifetime earnings.

Most universities in the UK have charity status and on average they receive just over a quarter of their funding from the government in the form of research grants and funding to cover the teaching of high cost subjects.

According to figures released by Hesa, universities generated £38.2bn in total last year, of which half (49%) came from tuition fees and education contracts. Various sources made up the rest of their income, including funding body grants (13%) and research funding organisations (16%). Some institutions, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London, receive significant endowments and donations, while others receive next to none. Oxbridge was reported last year to hold nearly £21bn in assets.

There is also a small but growing number of private universities in the UK that can award degrees, such as the University of Buckingham and Regent’s University London. Their tuition is not subsidised by the government and so they usually charge higher fees.

Part of their appeal is their flexible admissions systems: students apply directly, rather than via Ucas, which can be attractive to international students and applicants with non-academic qualifications. Other selling points might include a subject specialism – as typified by the University of Law – or a high staff-student ratio.

Are all universities profitable?

Some universities say they are struggling because of competition for students, political uncertainty and weakened finances. Last year, some English universities were reported to be at risk of closure following a drop in enrolments. Several universities have faced falls in numbers in recent years, including Kingston University, London Metropolitan University and the University of Cumbria.

Experts warn that some institutions are risking financial vulnerability.

“I think we are closer to seeing a university suffer financial collapse than at any point in living memory,” says Nick Hillman, director of Hepi and a former government adviser.

Hillman says universities lost a safety net when the government closed the Higher Education Funding Council for England in April last year and replaced it with the Office for Students (OfS). The OfS, which takes on its full legal powers this summer, has already indicated that it will not support institutions in financial trouble in the same way the old funding council did.

But institutional failure is not inevitable, Hillman adds. “Whatever people may say now, if any big institution does go under, I suspect public authorities will have to step in to facilitate a merger, takeover or bailout.”

Is it still worth going to university?

It’s a fair question. The financial burden of a degree isn’t to be taken lightly. Since tuition fees were tripled in 2012, university applicants have faced a large debt that keeps rising due to high interest rates. The average graduate debt – tuition compounded by maintenance costs and high rates of interest – stands at more than £50,000 for a three-year degree.

After the maintenance grant was scrapped in 2016, many students have struggled to manage financially during term time. The grant was replaced by the maintenance loan, which averages at £509 per month, but its value has since declined in real terms as rent and other living costs have risen.

The pressures extend to parents, who stump up an average £360 a month to support their children’s studies, according to a recent survey. Students don’t get the full maintenance loan if their parents’ household income is higher than £30,000, so parents are expected to make up the rest.

That said, a degree still pays off in the long run. According to the latest official statistics, graduates last year earned a median salary of £34,000, while non-graduates earned only £24,000.

But some students will benefit from a bigger wage premium than others. For instance, white graduates earned a median salary of £35,550, compared with £25,500 for black graduates. The graduate gender pay gap has widened slightly since 2016, with the median salary for graduate men rising by £1,500 more than for women.

Of course, these financial metrics are only so helpful. The value of a university education to an individual student can’t merely be measured by graduate earnings, if it can be measured at at all. People study for no single reason and the benefits to them and society are wide-ranging.

Which universities or courses offer the best employment prospects?

Graduates from the Russell Group of universities and comparable institutions tend to earn the most, according to last year’s data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Across the board, the average graduate earns between £26,000 and £30,000 after five years.

The highest earners of any gender are graduates from the London School of Economics, with women earning £45,000 on average and men earning more than £60,000.

The most employed graduates are in medicine and related professions. Medicine, maths and economics graduates earn at least 30% more than the average graduate, while creative arts graduates have the lowest employment figures and earn about 15% less than the average. (These figures don’t include income through self-employment.)

Some courses show a wide variation in salary uplift depending on the institution. Top-ranking business degrees, for example, yield earnings more than 50% higher than the average graduate wage, while business studies students from the lowest-ranking universities earn below the average.

Is it cheaper to study in Europe?

Several universities in Europe offer the opportunity to study for free or for a lower tuition fee than in the UK. German universities offer students places with free tuition, as do some institutions in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland.

These countries offer lots of courses in English, although students may need to meet language requirements for others. Accommodation and other costs will obviously vary.

In Scotland, tuition is free for Scottish students and students from the EU, but not to other UK students.

Another study abroad option is the Erasmus+ student exchange programme. This September, about 17,000 students plan to move overseas for a year through the EU-funded scheme. However, its future is uncertain as the government has so far failed to guarantee funding for the scheme amid the Brexit tumult.

What are the best alternatives?

The academic route isn’t for everyone. There are plenty of alternatives, including distance learning and online courses, which can be done remotely and part-time. Further education colleges offer higher apprenticeships and foundation degrees, which combine academic and vocational study.

The newest option is a degree apprenticeship, which was launched in 2015. For three or four years, apprentices study for their degree while gaining paid industry experience. Course costs are covered by the employer and the government, meaning degree apprentices often don’t have to pay for their tuition.

Factbox on the oldest university

Further reading

• This article was amended on 13 August 2019 to add further clarifying text to the section ‘Is it still worth going to university?’.


Alfie Packham

The GuardianTramp

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