Who has the most expensive higher education system for students?

May 19, 2016 Tony Bates

Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Kirby, P. (2016) Degrees of Debt: Funding and finance for undergraduates in Anglophone countries London, UK: The Sutton Trust

The answer, in a comparison between the major anglophone nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (NI), USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (NZ) is clearly: England. Graduates from English universities will leave with twice the debt of even private universities in the USA (£44,500 compared with the equivalent of £29,000 for for-profit universities in the USA and around £20,000 for public and private non-profits). Scotland will have the lowest average student debt (around £10,000), followed by Canada.

A good degree of caution is needed in interpreting these results. Tuition fees can vary considerably, both within countries (e.g. Canada) and between different kinds of institution in the same country (e.g. the USA). Student debt is influenced not just by the level of tuition fees but also by the availability of grants to students, parental contributions, and the availability of part-time work while studying. There are always problems with converting from several different currencies into one standard currency (in this case the U.K £). Debt also is influenced by the economic benefits following from graduation; debt is much more serious if there are few well-paying jobs after graduation. Canadian students may not feel this way, but they are fortunate in that within the first 10 years of graduating their annual income will average twice their total student debt, making repayment more manageable than in all the other countries except Scotland.

Main conclusions

Even allowing for understandable methodological difficulties, the differences are stark, and the consequences significant. These are best described by the report’s own main conclusions:

  • the average English student faces the highest levels of graduate debt within the major anglophone countries;   
  • however, the vast majority of English students’ study-related debt is held by the state, which has relatively clear repayment conditions compared to other Anglophone countries;
  • as a result [of the high tuition fees], the number  of  part-time  and  mature  students  enrolling  at  UK  institutions  across  recent years has dropped precipitously
  • while full-time undergraduate university enrolment [in England] has recovered since the imposition of £9,000 fees in 2012, university needs to remain a viable option for everyone, especially those from poorer backgrounds, who are   disproportionately under-represented across the UK professional landscape.


I am coming to the end of ten days spent in England, talking to friends who include an experienced primary school headmistress, and family who include two professors at English universities, two grandsons about to go to university, and two nieces who have recently completed their university studies. This is not a representative sample, but all week I have been hearing a tale of woe about public education in England.

The current Conservative government seems to be ideologically driven towards the privatisation of public education in England. Government funding for universities has been replaced by tuition fees, and the government wants to introduce market competition between schools and also between universities in the belief that this will drive up ‘quality’. Nevertheless there is no empirical evidence in the UK that shows that students from academies (which are replacing local government-run schools) or institutional competition through tuition pricing in universities is leading to better learning outcomes.

The Conservatives seem to have a completely wrong concept of education, based on set curricula, repeated testing of content, highly selective ‘weeding out’ of students who do not fit this paradigm, and governance by unelected trusts or corporations, a model of education that is clearly influenced by the British public boarding school system from which most of the Conservative government ministers have graduated. The current English education system is in a time warp that seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 2020s.

The results of these government policies have been high levels of stress and anxiety for school children in particular, a fundamental weakening (as intended) of the concept of public education, accompanied by a stagnant economy which is barely above the level following the economic recession of 2008. Could it be that English productivity and innovation are suffering as a result of these misguided educational policies?

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