The tuition fees debate is one that has caused much controversy in the UK over the past twelve months. The government’s decision to raise the cap on university tuition fees from £3,290 per year, to £9,000 per year was a shock to students past, present and future, and has certainly been one of the most debated topics on the UEA campus since its announcement.

The rising cost of the modern degree is a stark contrast to the situation of 14 years ago, when tuition fees were fully subsidised by the government and students therefore did not pay tuition fees towards the cost of their university education. For the 2012 student intake, a three-year degree course will cost a shocking £27,000 before even considering the cost of essentials, like accommodation, food and transport.

It is important to note, of course, that the additional £5,710 cost to each student is not actually providing any additional finance towards their education. Rather than upping tuition fees to provide a better service to students, universities are being forced to raise their tuition fees as a result of government cuts in the education sector, the money that used to be spent on subsidising a student’s degree and providing a university with more finance is now being placed elsewhere.

The cost of a degree now goes directly to the individual student, which some cite as a positive notion given that tax payers who did not attend university will no longer be providing funding for university-goers. Whatever the justification, questions of whether universities are providing value for money have been raised within the government, the media and among students themselves given the enormously increased cost to students beginning next year.

A first year student on an Arts degree course at UEA receives an average of just nine contact hours per week for approximately 24 weeks of the year – that’s a total of just 214 contact hours every year. Under the new fees scheme, the alarming price per head for each one of those contact hours will be £41.66; this academic year, the same student would pay a comparable £15.37 per hour. Does this seem like value for money, given the hundreds of students you are sharing those hours of contact time with? £42 per hour is the same price charged by the UEA’s Language Centre for one-to-one tuition, and a personal, one-to-one education is clearly not what students at UEA or most of the UK’s universities are lucky enough to receive.

Like many government-funded or government-subsidised areas, the university sector seems to have been suffering from a unique complacency over the past decade or so, and this is playing a key factor in light of the budget cuts universities are now facing. Budgetary improvements that are being considered and actioned now could have been addressed years ago, but during fruitful economic times, the university sector is happy to haemorrhage money, in the same vein as the NHS and other public services. On the UEA campus, the travel shop and box office have finally been combined to create a new ticket office, something that clearly could have and should have been actioned years ago. Perhaps if universities were better prepared to examine their budgets and actively attempt to turn a profit, there would be greater scope to provide better services for students despite these arguably unavoidable government cuts.

The only real consolation for students is that the availability of student loans will be increasing to match the new amount being paid by students – though it will now cost you £27,000 for tuition on a three-year course, money is readily available from the government to cover both tuition fees and student living expenses. Students will also have to be earning more to begin paying back their student loans when they graduate, with this threshold rising from £15,000 to £21,000.

No matter what finance is available and no matter what the justification is for the rising cost of education, many students will feel they are losing out under the new scheme, and justifiably, they will be more critical of their university and their government as a result of this. From now on, universities will come under much greater scrutiny for all aspects of the services it provides, from teaching to resources to events.

UEA may be known as a leading university in student satisfaction, but paying triple the previous year’s tuition fees will lead to much higher expectations for the individual in terms of student experience, and it will be interesting to see the consequences of this in the coming years.

Photo: Geraldine Morizet.