Just over 10 years ago, higher education was free to students. But according to recent statistics, the average student now incurs over £5,000 of debt per year of study at a UK institution, and that number is set to rocket when fees increase in 2012. At present, every university is planning on charging over £6,000 a year for tuition, with two thirds (including the University of Nottingham) intending to charge the full £9,000 tuition fee. This means that students starting in the next academic year could graduate with over £25,000 of debt from tuition fees alone.

And what’s worrying is that many are starting to question whether it’s all worth it. According to a survey conducted by Edge, a charity chaired by the former Tory education secretary, Lord Baker of Dorking, nearly 60% of parents think that a degree is less valuable than it was 10 years ago. In fact, nearly 50% of parents are now under the impression that degrees no longer give young people a good start in life. With headlines suggesting that 1 in 10 graduates are facing unemployment, the worst figures in 17 years, it’s easy to see why parents are worried. Students are also ever more concerned about the financial implications of going to university.

Impact spoke to Kate, who is starting at university this year. She explains, “I’ve started to look into all the costs and they just keep building. Tuition fees are one thing, but now I’m look at paying £98 a week on accommodation before even considering the price of food, books and socialising.” She continues, “With no promise of a job at the end, I have found myself asking — is it worth it?”

And Kate’s fears mirror the thoughts of many students during the current economic slump.  According to Sam, a recent graduate of Nottingham University, “There just isn’t much around at the moment. And the few jobs that are available are obviously very competitive. It’s not much fun being stuck back at your parent’s house, with no job and no money.”

In this current climate of confusion, more and more students are finding themselves unsure whether the university experience qualifies the huge debt. With fewer job opportunities, many are trying to gauge just how useful a degree actually is in trying to attain a career after leaving university.

Nevertheless, graduate recruiters Dave Andrews from Accenture and Giovanna Miceli from Mercer are adamant that they appreciate the extra skills students gain whilst studying at university. Dave Andrews explains that students gain skills in “problem solving, general knowledge and the ability to learn more independently. They also develop skills in communication, teamwork, and emotional maturity. University is a great way to develop academically, professionally and personally.”

Meanwhile, Giovanna Miceli emphasises that, “Graduates can be at an advantage as they may be on the way to obtaining professional qualifications through exemptions from their degree.”

So, university provides an outlet for gaining invaluable skills which employers find important, and could even provide opportunities to advance careers quicker than those without.

That’s all well and good, but should we have to pay such high tariffs for this opportunity? Many argue that an education is a fundamental human right and yet students are stiffed with high tuition fees every year. Impact spoke to one business student from the University of Nottingham, who had just 6 contact hours a week for most of the term, meaning that (in theory) each lecture was costing him nearly £30! But are tuition fees that transparent? Do most students even know what they get for their money?

According to the University of Nottingham’s annual financial statement (which is published online), the university made £165million in tuition fees (home, international and other) in 2010. Other incomings included £127m from HEFCE re Teaching and Research grants, £100million via other research grants and contracts and a further nearly £100m from other sources, notably accommodation, catering and conferences. Thus, tuition fees made up 32% of the university’s income last year.

In terms of how that money is spent, in 2010, the university’s spending included staff costs of £273million (i.e. pension and social security costs and covering all staff, whether academic, administrative or technical), which represents ca. 58% of all the costs.  Other major cost items includes laboratory equipment and consumables, scholarships, catering and the costs of running the various campuses, including all maintenance, utility bills and depreciation on all buildings. In total, the university spent nearly £480million last year.

Essentially, this means that the money we provide to the University by way of tuition is one of their key revenues. However, it only goes some way in covering even their staff costs. Whilst we may expect our money to pay for lecturers and tutors, we perhaps forget about all the other employees that are involved in running the university. This includes the library staff, technicians, security, maintenance workers and many more.

It also suggests that the improvements made to the sites, including the construction of new buildings, such as the Geospatial building on Jubilee Campus, are rarely covered by the income of tuition fees alone. We may therefore be taking the sheer quality of facilities we are provided with here at Nottingham for granted.

Impact caught up with Martin Wynne-Jones, the Director of Finance at University of Nottingham, to ask him if he thought the university offers good value for money. He replied, “The University, I think, offers a high quality teaching and learning experience with a highly regarded degree awarded at the end – the campuses offer excellent facilities as well as an outstanding environment to live in. The quality of the facilities rivals any other university across the country.”

But with fees at Nottingham rising to £9,000 in September 2012, will it still feel like students are getting such a fair deal? How does the decision to increase tuition fees affect the level of services the university provide? Will the extra money be pumped straight back into services and resources for the student?

Martin explains, “Firstly it has to be recognised that the increased fees are replacing reduced grants from the Government, particularly in relation to the teaching and capital grants.  We are also required to plough a significant proportion of the additional fees to support increased bursaries, scholarships and widening participation.”

“Yes, additional money is planned (but not finalised) to be spent on enhancing the student experience whether through further improvements in the campus infrastructure, staff/student ratios or changes to the ‘extras’ students are required to pay for.”

University then is still, in a literal sense, good value for money in terms of the pure quality of living and studying you experience. And it appears that a university degree will give you the best possible head start in the fierce job market. But looking at higher education from a personal perspective, can we even put a monetary value on our time at university? It may sound particularly cliché, but, do we ever stop to consider how invaluable our memories, friends and experiences really are?

Lydia, a recent graduate from Nottingham, reminisces on her time at university. She says, “I had the best time of my life. I have made friends who I hope to keep in contact with for the rest of my life, and so many amazing memories.” She adds, “Looking back, I would never change my decision to go to university.”

It may be costly, but going to university is an experience that very few would take back. With the job market looking scarier than ever, a degree is more likely to progress your career and the other skills learnt at university appear to be invaluable to employers. And having the privilege to graduate from Nottingham University (a university whose reputation continues to precede itself) we certainly have a helping hand.  But beyond that, university gives you the opportunity to build a foundation of friends and recollections that will remain for a lifetime.  Considering that the increased tuition fees will still have to repaid back in reasonably sized instalments, and hence should only take longer to be repaid, we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the academic and social values of higher education.

Samantha Owen 

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