Calculating tuition fees fairly is a slippery fish.

Are tuition fees justified, and if so, how much should they be? All over the world, fees for studying at university are either being introduced or increased, and there are very few countries that buck that trend. This suggests that there must be strong arguments for them…

The main rationale behind tuition fees is that going to university is a personal career investment, in that graduates have better job opportunities and salaries than non-graduates. This, on average, appears to be true, in that research shows that those with degrees are less likely to be unemployed and do have higher earnings over their careers. However, several things undermine this general observation:

  • Not all degrees provide these benefits in equal measure;
  • Tuition fees have negative social inequality implications;
  • It is not only graduates who gain from a university education.

Subject Earnings

Firstly, degrees do not all connect equally with high salaries. Subjects such as medicine, law, engineering and finance can be very lucrative, but if you charge higher fees for them, there is a risk that people from poorer backgrounds would be less able to access them. Universities in general, and the professions in particular, already have a pretty abysmal track record of admitting those from less affluent families, so this would further heighten existing social inequality. This would still be the case if the cost of studying was ‘deferred’ through loans, as the least wealthy are more debt averse.


Secondly, degrees do not all have the same chances of employment. Data in the UK shows that dentistry, for example, has the highest starting salary and the best employment rates. A study in the US found that nursing and education have good employment rates but relatively low salaries. Employment also depends on the health of the economy, and job markets change. The same US study saw that while architects generally commanded high salaries, the mortgage/economic crash from 2008 onwards meant the construction industry ground to a halt. As might be expected, the unemployment rate for architects shot up.

Even if you could somehow combine subject employability and earnings in the price of a degree, you still hit two buffers. The first is that a good job is never guaranteed, particularly if there are more graduates than graduate jobs. The second is in the potential exclusion of certain groups from particular subjects. In countries where there are strong hierarchies of universities, graduates from the ‘best ones’ are more sought after by employers. Again, if you charge more for degrees at these universities, then you erect further barriers to those from poorer backgrounds. Elite higher education already has a far lower proportion of less affluent students, so it would make a bad situation even worse.

Cost of Provision

Another option might be to  charge according to the cost of running a course. This would mean that degrees in the sciences and medical subjects — which need a lot of equipment and materials — would be very expensive. Also, some subjects are more labour-intensive than others, with high volumes of teaching hours. At the ‘cheapest’ end of the spectrum, the humanities and social sciences tend to have fewer classes and require little in the way of physical resources. There are also imbalances in cost of provision and career opportunities, in that some degrees (e.g. economics) are inexpensive to put on but can lead to profitable career paths, while others are more expensive but less well-paid (e.g. opthalmics). Again, though, charging more for some would mean that people from poorer backgrounds would be excluded from those subjects.


Who benefits from a degree? As we have already seen, the rationale behind fees is that graduates benefit directly in economic terms. This, though, can vary on a number of dimensions, and some degrees are certainly more ‘valuable’ than others. If graduates on average, though, do earn more, then this means they can spend more — helping the economy — and the government will collect more taxes from them, too. Also, their higher earnings should reflect their greater employment value, in that they they must be ‘worth it’ to the companies where they work. This indicates that there are economic arguments for the state and commercial sectors to support higher education.

There are also broader advantages that degrees provide, and while these may have also secondary (and less easily measurable) economic value, their chief virtues are societal. Through the work that graduates do, we have improved healthcare, labour-saving advances in technology, safer and more efficient vehicles and equipment, better construction quality, higher literacy and numeracy rates, and so on. As ‘the public’ draws social profit from people going to university, it seems reasonable that this also justifies public (i.e. state) funding for university students.


All in all, then, calculating tuition fees fairly is a slippery fish. If you charge according to the likely financial outcome, you could exclude particular groups from certain subjects or universities. Also, while later earnings might be somewhat predictable, they are not guaranteed; charging according to the cost of providing a degree again has implications for heightening inequality. Finally, it seems that it is not only graduates themselves who benefit from the existence of degrees, and it therefore seems unjust for university students to shoulder the entire cost of studying.


About ddubdrahcir

A Higher Educationalist...
This entry was posted in Access to Uni, Employability, Rankings, Tuition Fees. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Calculating tuition fees fairly is a slippery fish.

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  12. Jeanette says:

    Hi Richard, Germany completely bucked the trend…they introduced them and then removed them again. There was very strong resistance from students against the original introduction (I can remember lots of strikes!) …I wonder how much could be a cultural element? For me the principle of free education for all always felt very strong in Germany but we also don’t have many schools you pay fees for/no league table culture as such etc….

    • ddubdrahcir says:

      Hi Jeanett. Nice to hear from you! Yes, Germany did something very interesting. I think it happened for a mixture of reasons. One is that nearly all universities are state owned, unlike in the UK, and so they’re not independent organisations in the same way. This is another reason why the rankings haven’t taken off there, as universities don’t have a competitive ethos/history. We had protests here, too, but our political landscape is too narrow – three similar parties. In Germany the spectrum is broader, and you also have the Bundesländer to content with – Education is ‘Landsache’ – and it was interestingly, only the former West German Länder (who are wealthier) imposed fees. Those that didn’t introduce fees made the others look bad! You’re right about the cultural aspect – von Humboldt was ‘wielded’ in the protests/discussion to oppose fees, and the idea that universities are state funded but otherwise relatively free of state intervention is still very strong there. The presence of these values in German HE are both attributed to him. Richard

      • Jeanette says:

        One other difference was that the fees affected students studying….so protest were much bigger. I can remember days of all (well lots of) current students at the time striking…not just a few as it is here. and the first strikes were a week or so long. maybe teh protesting culture is different too?

  13. ddubdrahcir says:

    Very interesting… There has been some research that looks at how students in the UK are less politically engaged/militant than they used to be. Maybe the students should all strike!

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