Adding up the hidden costs of university

The debate around affordable higher education usually revolves around tuition fees - but there are far greater costs to going to university.

The debate around the cost of university is extremely misleading. All the focus is on tuition fees, with little or no mention of accommodation costs and living costs. Moreover, there are hidden costs which are not factored into even these categories. All of this means that the real financial situation for aspiring students from disadvantaged backgrounds is far more problematic than any commentary currently acknowledges.

First, it is important to note the real total of an undergraduate degree. As already stated, the debate in the media centres around tuition fees as if this represents the full price of a degree. However, this is a mere fraction of the cost. Living costs and accommodation costs are both huge expenses that are very rarely mentioned. A conservative estimate of living costs is around £3,500 - around £1,150 per term. Most housing costs around £400 per month, which equates to £4,800 per year. The prediction that allowing an increase in the tuition fee cap would create a market has been proved woefully inaccurate. House of Commons Library statistics show that for the academic year 2012/13, the average tuition fee was £8,400. This is only reduced to £8,100 when factoring in fee waivers. So an estimate of the overall cost of one year of undergraduate education at an average university is £16,700.

Second, we must establish the standard support given by Student Finance for students from low-income families. Tuition fees are automatically given as a loan which students only start paying back once they start working. In determining the financial situation of university undergraduates we only need to look at the other two expenditures: living costs and accommodation costs. Going on the estimates made above, this works out at roughly £8,300 per year. However, even for the most supported students, with household incomes under £25,000, there is only one payment to cover these two costs. The maximum maintenance payment, which includes the maintenance loan and grant, is currently £7,177. This leaves an initial black hole of over £1,100.

In addition to this initial funding deficit, there are a number of practical barriers which increase the financial burden further. For example, the figure for accommodation costs does not include a deposit - for most properties this is one months rent plus 100 pounds. Nor, indeed, does this include a cost for an agency fee. This is unlikely to be necessary in the first year when most students live in university accommodation, but in subsequent years this is very common. The agency fee is at least £100, bringing the black hole to £1,700. What's more, the deposit is only returnable after an inspection upon vacating the rented premises. The result of this is the requirement for a further expense of £600, as the next year’s accommodation has to be secured well in advance of receiving the initial deposit back. While the deposits are returned, it still requires students from low socio-economic backgrounds to find the money before it is returned. This brings our black hole total to £2,300.

The fact that this deficit must be filled by the institution creates a complex variety of potential situations, making it incredibly difficult for students to calculate the exact funding gap they will experience. Very few universities can fully ameliorate the funding gap. The University of Manchester, a member of the Russell Group, provides a significant amount of support to eliminate the deficit. Over a third of their undergraduate intake, which is approximately 8,000 per year, receives the ‘Manchester Bursary’. Students with family household incomes below £25,000 are eligible for £1,000 cash grant, and £2,000 in an accommodation discount. This support is sustained throughout their degree. However, this is the exception as most institutions are not wealthy enough to afford this level of support.

The University of West England (UWE), a former polytechnic, has had to dramatically reduce the support it offers students from low socio-economic backgrounds. The money it receives from the Access to Learning Fund has decreased significantly in recent years. In 2006/07, UWE had a fund of £944,544 to distribute through bursaries. In 2012/13, the figure had dropped to £552,358. The consequence of this can be seen in the number of students receiving a bursary. In 2011/12, there were 2,500 students eligible. This figure has fallen to 1,000 in the academic year 2012/13. As a result, a large number of students who meet the criteria for a bursary will obtain no help in narrowing the hole in their finances. However, the UWE bursary is only £1,000, leaving even the lucky students who receive a bursary in a deficit of around £1,300.

For new universities, the situation is even worse. The University of Gloucester, which acquired university status in 2001, offers virtually no support to plug the gap in student finances. For the academic year 2013/14, the institution will offer 206 scholarships through the National Scholarship Programme (NSP). This scheme is worth £3,000 in the first year of study, and £1,500 for all subsequent years. However, this support takes the form of fee waivers. This means that it has no impact on the financial black hole. Students not eligible for the NSP receive a bursary of £500, but only in their first year of study. The consequence of this is that students from low-income families have virtually no support in meeting the immediate funding gap.

These figures will vary according to institution and geography, there is no doubt that most low-income students have a large funding gap of well over £1,000. The amount varies significantly depending on institution and geography (regional prices and diverse travel costs), reaching anything up to £2,500. And this does not even factor in the impact of inflation. According to the Bank of England, the Consumer Price Index has averaged 3.4 per cent over the last 6 years. The impact of this being that every student is taking a real terms funding cut, year after year. If we are serious about increasing diversity and participation, the financial funding deficit for students from low socio-economic backgrounds urgently needs to be addressed.

Students graduating from the University of Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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