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 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 19 Aug '16

UK Masters Fees 2016-17 - Have Postgraduate Loans Raised Costs?

UK tuition fees have taken centre stage in the media recently, as universities reveal plans to raise costs above the previous £9,000 cap. This may not be a significant issue for most readers of this blog. After all, if you're considering a Masters you've probably already started (or completed) your undergraduate degree.

But what about Masters fees? Are they rising too? It looks like it. But things aren't quite that simple.

This week saw the release of the latest International and Postgraduate Fees Survey, published annually by the Times Higher Education magazine.

It reveals that the average cost of a taught Masters for UK and EU students is now £6,486. That's still a lot less than the cost of a Bachelors degree (rising to £9,250 at some institutions). But it's £585 more than the average for last year - an increase of almost 10%.

Of course, 2016 is also the first year in which students will have access to £10,000 postgraduate loans. This raises obvious questions about the possibility of universities raising fees now that students can 'afford' to pay more.

So, what does this mean for your course? And should students be worried? We've taken a closer look at the numbers and answered some of the questions you might have.

Is my Masters going to cost more?

No. At least, not if you're already beginning a course in 2016.

The survey doesn't reveal future increases to Masters fees. It simply brings together the costs universities have already set for the 2016-17 academic year and allows us to see any overall trends. The price you've been given for a Masters in 2016 is still accurate.

What if I'm planning to study after 2016?

It's hard to say. The fee rise between 2015 and 2016 is quite dramatic - in fact, it's more than double the average increase between 2014 and 2015. This could be a 'one-off' occurence, or it could be the result of universities increasing fees now that postgraduate loans are available.

How big is this increase?

The average cost of a taught Masters in the UK was £5,901 in the 2015-16 academic year. For 2016-17 it's £6,486. As previously mentioned, that's a rise of about 10% (well, 9.9% to be precise).

By way of comparison, the increase between 2014-15 and 2015-16 was £221 - about 3.8%. So Masters fees appear to be rising at almost double the rate this year.

That looks quite alarming - and it would be, if it became a trend. But there are a couple of things to bear in mind:

Postgraduate fees vary a lot

It's useful to know what the average is for Masters fees, but that's all this is: an average. It doesn't raise the cap for postgraduate fees (there isn't one). And it doesn't represent a 'standard' fee (as is the case for £9,000 / £9,250 undergraduate courses).

Or, to put it another way: £6,486 might be the new average cost of a UK Masters, but there isn't a single UK Masters degree in the survey that actually costs £6,486.

Instead courses can cost anything between £2,700 (the cheapest in the survey) to £31,608 (the most expensive).

Not all universities are raising fees

Universities don't just charge different amounts for Masters degrees. They also raise fees at different rates.

Fees at many institutions are actually rising at close to the same rate as they did in previous years. In fact, at a small number of institutions, the average fee has actually remained the same, or even decreased.

Is this connected to the new postgraduate loans?

Possibly. It's unlikely that a university would give the availability of the new student finance as the primary reason for a fee increase. But there is a suspicious correlation between the scale of this year's increase and the arrival of the £10,000 loans.

It's also notable that fees seem to be rising faster in England (where loans are available this year) than in other countries that are yet to introduce equivalent postgraduate finance:

Average Masters Fees by UK Country: 2016
England Scotland Wales Northern Ireland
£6,774 £5,471 £5,185 £5,185

Again, things aren't quite as simple as they seem. England has always been home to some of the UK's most expensive universities for postgraduate study and this has the effect of 'pulling' its average up.

However, it certainly seems possible that the introduction of postgraduate loans may be leading to an increase in postgraduate fees.

Will the government do anything to stop fees rising?

Not immediately. Concerns about postgraduate fee levels were raised during the 2015 public consultation on the new loans.

The government responded by stating that it did not intend to introduce a fee cap, but suggested that it might set up a process to formally monitor fees.

Should universities be criticised for raising fees?

This may be a matter of opinion. You can certainly be forgiven for being suspicious of an apparent fee rise, following hot on the heels of the new postgraduate finance. And for universities to simply charge as much as they think students can afford doesn't set a very positive precedent.

But, again, things aren't quite as simple as that. In fact, postgraduate courses may cost universities more to teach than they charge in fees. The average cost of delivering a Masters course was calculated at £11,315 in 2014. A figure for 2016 would probably be higher.

Universities are also facing an uncertain period in the wake of the EU referendum. With the possibility of falling EU enrolments putting a strain on some postgraduate courses (EU students make up a comparatively high proportion of postgraduate cohorts). It's possible that some institutions may be trying to 'shore up' the finance for their postgraduate provision, rather than simply capitalise on the new loans.

What does all of this mean for EU and international students?

The £6,486 figure represents the average cost of a Masters for 'domestic' students. That currently includes UK and EU students.

Costs for other students are quite a bit higher. The average international fee for a classroom-taught Masters in 2016-17 is revealed to be £13,442 (more than double the domestic average).

That rate has increased by about 4.2% since 2015-16. This is a much slower increase than for domestic figures, but the high cost of international fees remains an issue for international students.

What about Brexit?

It's possible that Britain's exit from the European Union will eventually lead to EU students being charged international fees. This won't happen for some time (Brexit is expected to take at least two years and the process has yet to formally commence).

In the meantime, EU students will continue to be eligible for postgraduate loans and will pay Masters fees at the lower domestic rate.

What happens now?

The fees revealed in the survey will continue to apply to Masters courses during the 2016-17 year. The question will be whether future years see an equivalent increase, or whether the government takes steps to formally monitor fee levels.

In the meantime, you can stay updated on this blog - or via our weekly newsletter.

This blog is based on analysis of the International and Postgraduate Fees Survey 2016, published, along with further analsyis, by Times Higher Education. Check out our guides for more information on postgraduate fees and funding in the UK.