Understanding the true price of university

7 September 2018

By Jemima Swindells

4 minute read

Tuition fees have dominated political discourse for decades. Whether we support it or not, we are all very much aware of the £27,000 debt we will take on if we choose to go to university. With so much talk about tuition fees, why is there such little talk about the immediate costs of university? Those far more tangible costs that impact the daily lives of all students, not to merely live but to actually gain the experiences university is promised to bring. This lack of information means that I am moving to Leeds for university in less than 3 weeks with next to no clue of how much being a student actually costs

The cost of university is far more than tuition fees. In fact, for a prospective student, tuition fees are little more than a daunting figure on a paper, for this is money I have never seen and probably won’t see for a very long time. In many ways, it feels like theoretical money. By contrast, the real costs facing students is far less acknowledged. It’s the £5,637 I’m being charged for one year in self-catered student halls. It’s the food shopping, the nights out, the bus fares, the society fees, and the additional course fees.

Except for the almost-£6,000 that I know is being spent on rent – there are no figures for how much I will likely spend on food, nights out, train tickets, and all the other expenses that haven’t even crossed my mind yet. Every year there’s an entire cohort of teens being sent off to university hoping that their student loan will see them through until Christmas without having to sacrifice the supposed ‘best years of your life’.

This summer has seen many instances of adults telling me to truly appreciate university while I’m there, and that it’s an experience like no other. Students don’t go to university and put themselves in £50,000 debt to just survive; the social expenses or ‘non-essential spending’, as the Leeds Uni website likes to put it, I think are crucial in getting the most of university, and yet it is so ambiguous how much altogether this costs a student.

As an 18-year-old, less than 3 weeks away from going to university and on threshold of experiencing rent and bills and generally just being solely responsible for my own survival for the first time in my life – I have absolutely no idea how much this is going to cost me, especially if I don’t merely wish to survive but actually enjoy the forthcoming years.

Despite recent efforts in education policy to push students towards apprenticeships, university is still seen as a right of passage in many ways. However, true understanding of the cost of the entire university experience may well encourage more students to consider other options more seriously. With 49% of recent graduates not working graduate jobs, for some students the huge cost is simply not worth the money. In fact, recent research by the Centre for Progressive Policy found that nearly 100,000 graduates every year would have been better off had they chosen the technical route instead.

Regrettably, a lack of understanding of the full cost of university perhaps means that many students reach this conclusion too late. Of course, many students benefit greatly from attending university, and I personally hope I will be part of that group. Yet more discussion would surely allow students to make the best decisions for themselves and, ultimately, make the most of those opportunities.

On the cusp of a new school year, I – and thousands of other 18/19-year-old students up and down the country – are having everything they’ve ever known be uprooted and while it is incredibly exciting, it is also equally terrifying. So why is it so accepted to send teenagers to live on their own for the first time and take on potentially the most pivotal years of their life with so much financial uncertainty?

Jemima spent a week on work experience at the Centre for Progressive Policy prior to going to Leeds University to study History & Politics.