New study shows EU’s patchwork university fees system

University tuition fees cost more in England than anywhere else in Europe, according to a new report from the European Commission – but the headline figures are not the whole story for students sizing up how to survive.

Students in England pay up to €11,500 (US$15,075) per year: those in Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta, Norway, Scotland and Sweden pay little or nothing.

In Austria and Denmark, national and European Union (EU) students pay no fees. In Norway, both national and international students are exempted from fees for public higher education.

The report, published on 10 September and titled National Student Fee and Support Systems 2011-2012, was produced for the commission by the Eurydice network.

There are great variations in tuition fees and support given to students to cover expenses, mostly tuition fees and living costs. Support is usually given as a grant or as a loan at a competitive rate, or as a tax break for students' parents.

Variations have to do with history, culture and economic capacity as well as governments and their ideologies, said Thomas Estermann, head of the governance, autonomy and funding unit at the European University Association in Brussels.

Some governments see higher education as a public good and pay for it: others view it as a study level that students need to pay to access – a private benefit.

England has the most advanced student support of any comparable country, according to an 11 September report from the OECD, cited by a spokesperson for the UK government's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Most new students from the EU arriving to study in England do not pay upfront for tuition, she added. Legally, English graduates need not start to pay back loans until they are in jobs paying at least €26,000 (US$34,072) a year.

Karina Ufert, chair of the European Students' Union, argued that support based on loans has major pitfalls as students can accrue large debts: up to €30,000 in England for a bachelor degree, for instance.

The Independent Commission on Fees in the UK reported in August that student enrolments in England fell 8.8% on expectations that fees would rise sharply.

Fees for this academic year were raised from €4,187 to €7,445 for basic tuition, although universities may charge up to €11,500 if they genuinely offer support to students and are able to retain them.

Estermann said lower enrolment was not solely due to fees. “One can't make a connection between enrolments and fees as a single aspect of the system. Look at the whole system,” he said.

Cost of living was another important factor, he added. “There might be countries [in Europe] with lower or no fees, but high costs of living.”

While fees in England have soared, Scotland does not charge fees to Scottish students or to EU students from outside the UK. It is an anomaly within the UK that Scottish students studying in England need not pay tuition fees, as their semi-autonomous government picks up the tab, while English students pay fees in Scotland.

“Our acceptances this year…are up by around 300 for Scots domiciles, and up by around 150 for EU students,” a spokesperson for the Scottish government told University World News. “Acceptances to English institutions are down by around 50,000”.

Student leader Ufert sees countries with a universal student support system as being more socially inclusive and having higher educational attainment rates. She believes states should provide support based on need rather than merit.

The European Commission has no statutory role in EU member states' higher education. “Our policies are aimed at increasing the number of graduates, modernisation of higher education and encouraging transparency, equity and accessibility,” Dennis Abbott, European Commission spokesperson for education, told University World News.