18 facts about the cost of higher education

Changes to student fees have left parents and future students misinformed and believing myths. Martin Lewis explains what fees really mean.

1. Changes hit students starting in or after September 2012

Universities can now charge students up to £9,000 a year, provided universities use some of the extra cash to pay for bursaries or give fee waivers to students from poorer households.  Students who started in 2011 or before will stick with the previous system of  fees (max £3,375/year).

2. You DON’T need cash to go to university

It ISN’T a case of ‘pay up or you can’t go’. Tuition fees for full-time, first time undergraduates are automatically paid by special Student Loan Company loans. They only start repaying the April AFTER graduation if they earn enough.

3. It’s repaid like income tax so no debt collectors

Employers automatically deduct repayments before paying you, simply reducing your pay packet. So no debt collectors will come chasing.

4. Earn under £21,000 and you’ve nowt to pay

You repay 9% of earnings above £21,000/year, eg, earn £31,000 and you repay £900/year. If you start repaying, then if earnings drop, your repayments drop accordingly. In 2017, the year after most 2012 starters begin repaying, this threshold starts rising each year, in line with average earnings.

5. After 30 years any remaining debt is wiped

You stop owing when you’ve cleared the debt or 30 years pass (or you die). If you never earn over the threshold, you’ll never repay.

6. Annual repayments will be £540 LESS than under the previous system.

Today graduates repay 9% of everything above £15,000, but under the new £21,000 threshold more cash remains in graduates’ pockets.

Earnings Annual repayment now Annual repayment 2012
£15,000 Nothing Nothing
£21,000 £540 Nothing
£22,000 £630 £90
£30,000 £1,350 £810
£50,000 £3,150 £2,610


7.Repayments are the SAME whether fees are £6,000 or £9,000

Graduates’ monthly repayments are based only on how much they earn, not their borrowing, so fees are irrelevant for this.

8. Above-inflation’ interest is charged

Current graduates pay the RPI rate of inflation. Yet in 2012 while studying the interest’s inflation plus 3%. From April after graduation, earn under £21,000 and it’s just inflation, and above that rises gradually until at £41,000 it maxes out at inflation plus 3%.

9. You WILL owe money longer and MAY pay a lot more

Combining the facts you pay less each year, but the original debt’s bigger and the interest rate higher means it will take MUCH longer to repay the loan.

10. Part-time students get tuition fee loans too

Fees are also rising for part-timers to £4,500 to £6,750. Yet for the first time part-timers are now eligible for tuition fee loans, exactly like full-timers (though not maintenance loans).

11. Student loans also cover living costs

Students also get maintenance (living) loans on the same terms for food, books, accommodation and travel. Up to £4,375 is available if living with parents, £5,500 away from home and £7,675 in London.

12. Lower-income family students get living grants

If your household income (either parental or your own) after tax is under £25,000, you get a £3,250 maintenance grant that NEVER needs repaying. The grant shrinks then vanishes above £42,600 income, though the amount of loan you get shrinks if you get a grant.

13. It’s unlikely to impact future mortgage applications

Student loans don’t go on your credit files, although application forms can ask about them. It’s likely saving for and getting a mortgage in the early years should be easier, as starters from 2012 will have more after-tax income once working. Yet this is roughly countered by longer indebtedness, meaning less disposable income later.

14. For many, £9,000 fees won’t cost them more

The combination of lower repayments, higher interest and bigger fees mean many are unlikely to repay in full over the 30 years – even at just the £6,000 tuition fees level.

Even some with starting salaries as big as £30,000 won’t repay in full. In which case, there’s no additional cost of doing a £9,000 course.

15. Early repayment penalties may be introduced

It’s not confirmed yet and still open for discussion (I’m lobbying against, see www.moneysavingexpert.com/earlyrepay), yet it may mean if you take the loan and try and pay early they’ll add to the costs.

16. If offered a fee waiver or a bursary, go for the bursary

Those from lower income homes are likely to be offered incentives of up to £3,000 a year by universities. If there’s a choice between a fee reduction or cash, most should go for cash. The simple reason is, as many never repay in full, unless you earn a big salary after graduating, you simply won’t pay any less due to the fee wavier.

17. It’s more like a tax than a loan

It’s repaid through the income tax system, you only repay it if you earn over a certain amount, and it does not go on credit files. So for parents it’s better to think of it as a tax that your chid will pay if they succeed in earning more, rather than a debt hanging over their head for life.

Those who gain financially from going to university will repay a lot: those who don’t will pay little or nothing.

18. You don’t need to take the fee loan – but probably should

If parents (or students) have got the cash, you can just pay the fees upfront. Yet for the vast majority of people, on pure financial logic, this is a bad move.

Imagine you pay £27,000 over three years in fees. Then after graduation your child becomes a low paid artist or full-time parent. You will have paid for something that never needed repaying. Even if they earn over £21,000 they still may not have repaid anywhere near as much as you paid.

So unless they’re guaranteed a lifetime of high pay (as there is an interest cost while at uni) if the cash is there, its safest to put it in a high paying cash ISA/savings during studies and take the loan.

Afterwards if it looks like it’ll be repaid, clear the debt then. Or, alternatively, it may simply be better used towards lowering a mortgage or car loan – worse and costlier forms of debt.

See the expanded version of this guide at MoneySavingExpert.com

And check out the No-nonsense guide to student finance

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