A new paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) calls for greater transparency on the use of students’ tuition fees.

Where do student fees really go? Following the pound (HEPI Report 113) by Nick Hillman, Jim Dickinson, Alice Rubbra and Zach Klamann shows around 45% of tuition fee income is spent on teaching. Most of the rest goes on areas that also directly benefit students, like maintaining buildings, information technology and student support services, such as counselling.

The report also shows:

  • 74% of students want more information on where their fees go;
  • past commitments to deliver more information have not generally been met; and
  • few students want their fees spent on recruitment, advertising or community work.

The report includes case studies from across the higher education sector to show the sort of information on fees that is currently provided to students.

It ends with 10 recommendations for universities, regulators and policymakers designed to improve transparency and public understanding. These include:

  • relabelling ‘tuition fees’ as student fees’;
  • publishing cash figures on where fees go that relate to the actual fees paid;
  • developing new income streams for the costs of valuable work that is difficult to justify funding from student fees.

Nick Hillman, The Director of HEPI and a co-author of the report, said:

Tuition fees were introduced 20 years ago and they’ve been tripled twice. Ministers and regulators have repeatedly demanded information on where the fees go. Yet there is still little information available and three-quarters of students want to know more.

The arguments for telling students what they want to know are overwhelming. Where this has already occurred, it has tended to show less than half of the fees go on the direct costs of teaching but most of the rest does go on student-facing activities.

Any reduction in the headline fee cap is therefore likely to hit students hard – unless every penny were permanently replaced by other funding, which history suggests is exceedingly unlikely.

Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University (one of the case studies in the report), said:

We believe it is right and important to tell our students where their fees go. We give our students high-level information showing £3,550 goes on student-facing activity and £3,220 on student-facing services. We also give them a detailed breakdown, which shows exactly how much we spend on salaries, buildings, the students’ union, widening participation activities and a whole lot more besides.

It is incumbent upon universities to become ever more transparent and the recommendations in this report illustrate ways in which vice-chancellors and their senior teams can move further in this important direction.

Jim Dickinson said:

Students and their unions have been clamouring for information about where their fees go for years – yet despite nudges from government and sector bodies, research suggests that little progress has been made.

Fears that increased transparency will lead to dissatisfaction are unfounded – and regardless of the balance between the state and student in funding higher education, students want and deserve to know where the money goes.

Please find attached a copy of HEPI Report (113), Where do student fees really go? Following the pound. Please note it is embargoed to 00.01 hours, Thursday 20th September.

Note for Editors

The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.