Undergraduate to Under-Paid: Assumptions Behind the Marketisation of University Fees

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As universities across the country prepare for the latest influx of new students this month, an article by Sarah Hall (2015) in the most recent issue of Area reveals the truth about the saga surrounding university tuition fees.

The New Labour Government first introduced undergraduate student fees in 1998. Originally capped at £1,000 per annum, fees facing English students have now risen to a maximum of £9,000 per annum, completely changing the nature of higher education. What is more, an article in The Independent (2015) this summer has predicted a further increase, with fees expected to reach £10,000 per annum by the end of the decade. University degrees have been transformed from a public to a private good, a commodity that reframes students as consumers. Fees, however, vary within the newly-devolved United Kingdom. Welsh students currently pay a maximum of £3810 per annum, Northern Irish students £3805 per annum, and Scottish students have paid nothing since devolution in 2000.

The justification of English university fees relies on a number of assumptions about graduate salary premiums and domestic labour markets which, Hall (2015) argues, ignore the simultaneously relational and territorial nature of labour markets. The process whereby undergraduate fees were normalised in this country was based on the argument that existing funding was not financially sustainable. Asserting the value of obtaining a degree in terms of enhanced job prospects and greater salaries, it was decided that the individuals who benefit most from universities should contribute more. However, the nature of these benefits is highly variable, with employment rate and salary premium differing greatly between degree subjects, universities, genders, and geographical locations. It cannot, therefore, be assumed that every university student graduates with the same opportunities.

The marketisation of university fees in England depends on students being prepared to take out a student loan, but also on their earnings reaching the threshold level of £21,000 so that the loan starts to be repaid. However, these assumptions have now been challenged, as it is estimated that fewer graduates will be able to pay back their loan. A report in The Independent (2015) predicts that as many as 75% will not pay back their loan before it is written off, 30 years after their graduation.

Hall (2015) identifies the multiple global factors changing the nature English graduate labour markets, and contributing to the increased number of graduates not earning the threshold level. A major factor is the significant increase in the number of international students graduating from English universities and competing with English students for graduate jobs. Furthermore, the nature of work is changing; employers are increasingly looking for higher skilled workers at lower costs, and information technology is being used as a managerial tool to further reduce labour costs. Finally, an increasing number of graduates are working in non-graduate level jobs or overseas and, therefore, not benefiting from salary premiums.

It appears that holding a degree from an English university no longer puts graduates at an advantage. It is, however, not all doom and gloom. An article by BBC News (2015) last month shows that at least graduate unemployment is on the decrease. Only 2.6% of students graduating in 2011 are now unemployed, the lowest rate since 2008. Furthermore, the number of students at university from disadvantaged backgrounds has not decreased, as was expected following the rise in tuition fees.

The Times Higher Education (2015) last month stated that students’ spirits are not being dampened by their precarious financial positions. In its first year since the rise in fees, the National Student Survey has reported an unchanged level of student satisfaction. 86% of current students are satisfied with their university experience, but how many will be as satisfied once they have left the deceptive university bubble and enter the real world?


books_iconHall, S. (2015). “Geographies of marketisation in English higher education: territorial and relational markets and the case of undergraduate student fees”, Area, doi: 10.1111/area.12216.

60-world2BBC News. (2015). “More graduates in work, survey suggests”. August, 27th 2015. Available at:

60-world2The Independent. (2015). “Tuition fees: UK universities set to charge £10,000 by end of decade, says major report”. July 30th 2015. Available at:

60-world2The Times Higher Education. (2015). “National Student Survey 2015: £9k fails to dent satisfaction”. August 12th 2015. Available at:

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