Preparing for More Expensive Degrees in England

CREDIT: Marc_Smith/Flickr

Balancing a tight budget is one of the most difficult aspects of being a student. A recent survey from the European Council of Doctoral Candidates and Junior Researchers found that money issues are the most critical concerns for young researchers in Europe, ahead of working conditions, training, and supervision.

Ongoing uncertainty over the impact of the funding cuts means that many universities haven't yet set their postgraduate charges for 2012.

Starting in 2012, money is likely to become an even more important concern for students as universities in England are allowed to charge undergraduates up to £9000 per year ($14,200 or €10,300) in tuition fees as a way of dealing with government funding cuts. That's a nearly threefold increase from the current fees, which are capped at £3375.

The funding cuts are set to affect postgraduate education, too, with most English universities expected to increase postgraduate tuition to cover any remaining shortfall. Just how severe the changes will be for postgraduates is uncertain, but many experts advise caution. “All universities are trying to encourage students to think more seriously about how they’re going to manage,” says Sheila King, financial support coordinator at Cardiff University in Wales.

So, what do students need to know about the changes?

Details and debt

The details are complicated. Universities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales will be allowed to raise tuition to the same extent as in England, but in those places the new fees will apply only to students coming from the rest of the United Kingdom. For example, Scottish students do not currently pay tuition and will not be expected to do so after 2012 -- unless they attend universities in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland. The Welsh Assembly has agreed to subsidize Welsh students so that they will pay no more than £3465 per year, wherever in the United Kingdom they choose to study. Northern Ireland is capping fees at around £3465 per year for its home students. This means that only English students will face £9000 fees to attend university in their own country.

What About the Rest of Europe?

The rise in the cost of undergraduate tuition places England well above most other European countries. According to online resource Study in Europe, in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Slovenia, and Sweden, national and E.U. students do not pay anything. In Iceland and Luxembourg, all students pay a registration fee of €100 to €250. In other European countries, fees range from €169 per year (in France) to €3000 per semester in parts of Switzerland, but most are around €1500 per year.

The United Kingdom has always been expensive by European standards, but it has long been the destination of choice for university education, attracting 18.3% of international students in Europe, according to Study in Europe. The rise in tuition fees could change this, and also create an outward trend: Many national news reports claim that a growing number of U.K. students are looking to study elsewhere in Europe to escape the rising costs.

To find out more about how undergraduate student fees are changing in the United Kingdom, visit the government’s Directgov portal. For more advice for prospective students, visit the Web site of the National Union of Students.

A further inequity is that under E.U. regulations, universities must charge students from the rest of the European Union the same amount as home students. This means that fees for E.U. students will be heavily subsidized or waived by universities in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales (but not England), while English students in these three countries will pay more than E.U. students attending the same universities. (Both English and E.U. students will pay up to £9000 in England.)

Even in England, the situation is muddled. The government recently offered 20,000 funded places, which universities can bid for if they agree to bring their average fee down below £7500 per year. Twenty-eight universities in England -- one-fifth of all universities -- have applied for the program, but details will not be finalized until later this year after many students have applied to matriculate in 2012.

Whatever the tuition bill, full-time undergraduates in England will have to either pay up front or apply for a loan from the government, which they need not begin paying back until they have completed their degree and are earning more than £21,000 per year. Full-time undergraduates can apply, in addition, for a maintenance loan to contribute to accommodation, food, and travel costs. Part-time students will be able to apply for a tuition loan but not a maintenance loan.

The main concern of career advisers and student-support workers is the substantial debt that most students in England will face after graduation. For a standard 3-year degree charged at £9000 per year -- science courses are among the most expensive to run -- the average debt from student loans, including maintenance, is expected to be around £43,000. The British Medical Association estimates that medical students could graduate more than £70,000 in debt.

A new National Scholarship Programme launched by the government will ensure that most universities can offer bursaries of at least £3000 to a few students from low-income families. These would be one-off payments consisting of a cash award and/or discounted tuition and accommodation costs. Other scholarships may be available from external sources in specific subject areas. For example, the National Health Service funds a number of undergraduate dentistry, nursing, and biomedical science students each year.

The benefits of part-time work

One way of dealing with the new financial burden would be to work part time. According to the 2010 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey, more than one-quarter of all undergraduate students in the United Kingdom worked part time during their studies that year -- a percentage that is now expected to rise. For those doing a second undergraduate degree, a job may be the only option, as they will not be eligible for government loans.

Juggling part-time work and studies can be tough -- see the box below for advice -- but a job or paid internship can have benefits beyond the financial. “There is a recognition and a demand for students to be as employable as possible when they finish their degree, and part of that is gaining relevant work experience,” King says.

“My internships helped me during my master's as I had already had 3 months of experience using different equipment and writing a lab book,” says Mike Stock, who began a Ph.D. in geology this year after doing internships with the Atomic Weapons Establishment, the international oil and natural gas company Petro-Canada, and a research assistantship at the University of Southampton.

Mike Stock (CREDIT: Mike Stock)

Planning for postgraduate studies

Ongoing uncertainty over the impact of the funding cuts means that many universities haven't yet set their postgraduate charges for 2012. According to a recent National Survey of UK Tuition Fees, the average cost of a taught master’s degree program across 147 U.K. higher education institutions rose 24% in just 1 year, from £4989 in 2010-11 to the current £6184. The fee is expected to increase even more dramatically in 2012. “Ultimately, the decision on postgraduate fees will depend on calculations about what they need to do to survive as a university,” says a University of Southampton Student Services representative who prefers not to be named.

In the United Kingdom, approximately 19,000 Ph.D.s are partly or fully funded by the research councils. Universities and industry partners also offer funded postgraduate positions and a range of bursaries, scholarships, and awards (mostly for Ph.D. students). However, many universities are now unsure how many positions they will be able to support in 2012. This could leave some Ph.D. students struggling for funding, since the government does not provide loans to support postgraduate study. One view held by careers specialists is that an increasingly competitive job market, paired with difficult economic times, might encourage more students to pursue postgraduate degrees. “If there are fewer funding opportunities available for postgraduate study and more applicants, each available position will become very competitive,” says the Southampton University Student Services representative.

Graeme MacGilchrist (CREDIT: Graeme MacGilchrist)

This makes it all the more important for aspiring postgraduate students to seek funding early, especially if they have financial commitments such as a mortgage or a family. One approach is to apply for funding as broadly as possible. “After my undergraduate degree in mathematics, I was awarded a £4000 scholarship from the Society for Underwater Technology,” says Graeme MacGilchrist, who began a M.Sc. in oceanography this year. Some High Street banks offer Professional and Career Development Loans that can help pay for postgraduate education. Students with entrepreneurial inclinations might be able to generate their own funding by approaching a private sponsor with a research proposal. “Although this is quite an unusual route in the sciences, it may be possible for individuals with a unique idea and considerable support from a supervisor,” says Clare Jones, senior careers adviser at the University of Nottingham.

As U.K. students brace for tough times, the key message from career advisers and student representatives is that students can ease the situation by starting to plan now. “We can’t do anything about the level of fees, but we can do something to help students help themselves,” King says.

Further Advice on Juggling Part-Time Work and Study

Balancing studies, paid work, and a social life can be tricky, and it is important to get the balance right. Here are six tips from students and career advisers on how to ease the pressure.

Find a flexible employer. Figure out the time demands of your courses, including any lab work or fieldwork, and try and find a job that will accommodate those demands. Many universities offer a variety of temporary work on campus, as a research assistant, promotional worker, or library assistant, for example. Often these jobs have flexible hours.

Know your limits. Most universities recommend a maximum of 15-16 hours per week of work while pursuing full-time studies, preferably only during the first and second year of an undergraduate degree. When the workload steps up significantly in the third year of your undergraduate program, or when doing research during a master’s degree or Ph.D., you are likely to find it difficult to maintain another job. Planning ahead is key, but it can help if you find a job that is directly relevant to your studies, such as a teaching assistantship.

Make the most of your time. Make sure that you concentrate fully in lectures to save time going over the course material later on. If you use public transport, use that time to read your course notes or listen to recorded lectures. Continually reassess how to best use your time. “I learned to make a weekly plan and to constantly re-evaluate it,” says Lauren Hall, an intensive care nurse who worked at night during her full-time master’s degree in marine biology, which she completed in 2007.

Ask for help. Make sure your supervisor knows you have a job so that he or she can try to accommodate your busy schedule. Also visit your university's student support services office, which can organize one-to-one sessions or group seminars to help you budget. Hardship funds, which are designed to take some of the pressure off students encountering unexpected financial difficulties, may also be available.

Take advantage of university resources. If you can’t go to all lectures, take full advantage of course materials and practice exams posted on university intranet sites. Don’t be afraid to ask lecturers to point to additional resources, such as useful Web sites or supplementary reading material. Search the university’s Web site for academic achievement scholarships or bursaries that would support you if you choose to study abroad.

Stay sociable. Having a sociable job, in a bar or coffee shop for instance, can help you feel part of a community when you wouldn’t otherwise have time to socialize. But be careful. “Working at night in bars can get you into the habit of staying awake late, getting up late, then going to bed late again. It’s a sort of positive feedback that ends up spiraling into missed lectures if you aren’t careful,” warns Michael Henehan, who managed a bar at the University of Bristol while pursuing a master’s degree in paleontology and evolution.

Roz Pidcock is a freelance science writer in the United Kingdom.

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