Universities that keep lectures online may struggle to justify ‘highest fees’

The largest rise over the past decade has been in England where fees have tripled.

Universities that keep lectures online may struggle to justify ‘highest fees’ iStock

Universities may struggle to sustain charging such costs to students if online provision remains, an education expert has warned.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said students go to university to meet people and “experience the social life of campus” and it will be a “real challenge” for universities if they keep learning online.

The largest rise over the past decade has been in England where fees have tripled, according to the OECD’s latest education at a glance study.

The findings come as a number of universities across the country are planning to keep lectures online this term as they adopt a blended approach to learning, with a mix of in-person and online teaching.

Universities in England can charge up to £9250 per year for an undergraduate degree, and even more to overseas students.

Scottish students do not pay tuition fees in Scotland, and Northern Irish students benefit from a lower tuition fee cap in Northern Ireland.

The OECD report said: “National students in government-dependent private institutions in England were charged US 12,330 dollars per year for a bachelor’s degree in 2018/19.

“This was more than three times the amount that they were charged in 2009/10 on average, following reforms that raised the cap on tuition fees in 2012/13.”

When asked whether universities in England can justify charging such high tuition fees if some of the learning is kept online, Schleicher said: “I do think that the value proposition of universities is being challenged in the age in which we live.

“I don’t think you can ask students to pay £9000 for just these online lessons.

“Students go to university to meet great professors, they go to university to work with colleagues and researchers in a laboratory, they go to university to experience the social life of campus and that’s the value proposition of universities.”

Speaking at the launch of the report in London, he added: “When it comes to online provision, I don’t think universities will really retain a monopoly. I think this is going to be a real challenge.

“I think either universities find a good way to do something meaningful that is actually personal, intensive and interactive and social, and then they can charge for that.

“Or if they just go digital, I wonder whether they will be able to maintain those costs.”

A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “UK universities are world-leading, with the benefits of obtaining a degree here wide-ranging. Graduates in England earn on average £10,000 more per year than non-graduates, and this is only one measure of success.

“The structure of the system in England means that no student pays fees up front and repayments are made based on a graduate’s ability to pay over their working life.”

She added: “The reality is that since 2015, universities have been doing more with less and making up the shortfall on the cost of teaching and support because fees have not kept pace with inflation.

“In addition, universities have increased spending on essential Covid-19 safety measures as well as enhanced digital learning platforms, and increased student support.”

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