Monthly Archives: November 2014

What does #free education really mean?

Following last week’s demonstrations in London there has been increased focus on how other countries can afford to sustain mass-participation higher education without resorting to £9,000 a year tuition fees. While “free education” exists precisely nowhere, there are certainly variations in the way that students cover the cost of going to university not to mention differences in the contribution that national governments make.

We thought it might be a good idea to look at three of our European neighbours to see whether the reality there is any better.


How Do French Students Pay For University?

Whilst students at French universities pay amongst the lowest tuition fees in Europe (for 2014/15 the set enrolment fee is €184 per annum for most three year Bachelor’s degrees), they still have to fund living costs for the duration of their study.

Key findings from a recent report by the Observatoire de la Vie Étudiante, or OVE, identified the main sources of student income for students studying in France. With barely 1% of support from students loans (available from some banks under guarantee), over 30% from family support, followed closely by 29% from paid employment (almost twice as much as in UK), the landscape of student finance in France contrasts dramatically with the UK funding situation.

Nearly one in two students undertake paid work during the French university year and according to the OVE report more than half considered their employment essential to their survival.

Fage (Fédération des Associations Générales Étudiantes) also calculated that a student has to spend an average of €2,525 (nearly £2,000) to start an academic year at a French university, an increase of 1.5% on 2013/14 figures. FAGE also claims that 28% of students had to take paid work to get by, and that there was a 50% risk of academic failure for those who worked more than 12 hours a week.

Income Source UK* France*
  % of income
Fee and Maintenance Loans 58% 1%
Family Support 14% 30%
Paid Work 15% 29%
Grants / Bursaries / Public Benefits 12% 25%
Miscellaneous 1% 15%

(6% respectively for both savings and support from a spouse/partner; 3% miscellaneous)

*Statistics Sources

UK: Student Income and Expenditure Survey 2011/12 (published June 2013 by the Department for Business Innovation & Skills) BIS Research Paper Number 115


France: Observatoire de la Vie Étudiante, or OVE: La Vie Étudiante: Repères:

While university in France may work out cheaper for students overall, there is clear evidence that students have to rely more on personal resources and part-time work than their British counterparts.

French public universities have not benefited from anything like the investment in infrastructure that most British universities have seen over recent years. Class sizes and facilities are unlikely to be impressive to British students. Private universities, sometimes owned by regional chambers of commerce, are increasingly prevalent and have little problem recruiting students at around €8,000 a year tuition fees.

It is also worth noting that the Grandes Ecoles in France attract around 30% of state funding for undergraduate education yet have only around 4% of the number of students. So, French students at the elite end of the higher education spectrum probably have less to worry about from the perspective of value for money.

How Do German Students Pay For University?

Germany has been held up as an example of mass higher education entirely funded by the state. From 2015 there will be no tuition fees at any public university as financial responsibility for higher education passes back from the 16 Bundeslaender to the federal government.

In recent years Germany has seen growth in the number of students going to university although the “dual” system of apprenticeships with vocational training still accounts for a large proportion of young people after they leave school. The number of students at university in Germany is roughly comparable with the United Kingdom although the proportion of total population is slightly lower at this time.

From 2016 there will be changes to the way that German students pay for university but these will actually make the system slightly more generous than it is currently. Through BAföG, the German Federal Training Assistance Act, student finance is determined by law. In 2016 all students at university will be able to access financial assistance in the amount of €735 per month. 50% of this amount will be as a grant with the remainder either a grant or an interest-free loan depending on the income of the student’s family. In addition, there is a rent subsidy of up to €250 per month for students living away from home. There is no loan facility for tuition fees for the rather obvious reason that there are no tuition fees.

It is therefore likely that a student borrowing the maximum amount possible through the German system would leave university after a three-year Bachelor’s degree with a total debt of around €11,000 and no interest would have accrued on this amount. The state’s contribution to a student’s education would be around €18,000. This would suggest that the total cost of educating a German student to Bachelor’s degree level is around €30,000 plus whatever funding is made available to the university by direct grant. It is likely that this would be around the same overall amount as in England.

How Do Dutch Students Pay For University?

Dutch students are faced with tuition fees higher than in either Germany or France but still significantly lower than in England. In 2015, one year at university will cost €1,951 for nearly every Bachelor’s or Master’s degree.

Students can borrow the tuition fees from their government in the form of a loan that is repaid over a 15 year period. This loan is made directly to students and it is their responsibility to pay the fees themselves.

The principle behind tuition fees in the Netherlands is roughly comparable to the English system before the introduction of £9,000 fees; students are asked to make a contribution to the cost of their education which is then topped up by the Dutch government on a per student basis. For every Dutch or other EU student universities can expect to receive around €9,000 in funding.

For maintenance costs Dutch students can currently access a combination of grants and loans. However, there is some suggestion that will this convert entirely into loans in the next few years. Currently students who live away from home are automatically entitled to a grant of around €250 per month. There is also an additional entitlement of around €250 but this is means-tested and can be either a grant or a loan, or as a combination of both. If this element is awarded as a loan it is currently interest-free for the duration of the student’s time at university.

Dutch students are also awarded a nationwide travel card that is either valid through the week or at the weekend. This allows train travel throughout the country.

In addition to the loans outlined above there is also provision for a hardship loan of around €275 per month for students who need this in order to meet their financial obligations. This loan is subject to interest at market rates.

For further details on how this works you can visit the loans and grants page of our website:

One peculiarity of the Dutch system is that British and other EU passport holders can benefit from maintenance finance if they meet certain conditions. Ordinarily, student finance to cover tuition fees must be made available to all EU citizens but maintenance support is discretionary.

British students who work 56 hours a month every month of the year can claim maintenance finance after three months. In effect, it is possible to become a Dutch resident after only three months whereas in other countries it may take years. This financial support is becoming harder to claim as the Dutch government regularly alters the terms and conditions. As it is dependent on residency status rather than student status such changes are not actually changes to student finance in the way that this might be understood in the UK.

Other Countries

The pressure on national governments to expand higher education provision is felt in almost every country of the European Union.

In Denmark, strict limits on the number of student places have been introduced, particularly in the arts and humanities, in order to maintain free provision for those who get a place. This may have negative consequences for those who find cutbacks in their area of interest and are now denied access to a university education.

In Scotland there is some suggestion that tuition free undergraduate study has come at the expense of investment in other areas of post-secondary education.

In many countries means-testing is used to assess how much the student’s own contribution to the cost of their education should be. In countries such as Spain and Italy, students will be expected to pay for their higher education in advance.

There are very few countries where maintenance loans are available to other EU students. Bulgaria is often cited as an example of a country where such loans are available but these are loans from high street banks, underwritten by the national government, and have more in common with commercial bank loans than student finance.


The cost of university in England is certainly likely to be higher than in any other European country. However, the student finance system does at least allow anyone to go to university irrespective of their financial circumstances.

We advise British students considering international universities primarily to avoid English student debt to look beyond the cost of university education because access to finance is likelier to have a bigger impact than the actual price tag.

It is extremely unlikely that English students will be able to use universities abroad to obtain a free higher education as very little funding is available in other countries. Within the EU, tuition fee loans will be available to British students where they exist and means-testing of fees will also apply. However, there is no requirement for funding available for maintenance to be made available to non-nationals. As this is usually the largest component of the cost of European higher education it can be an insurmountable obstacle.

The wider issue of whether or not students should be required to pay all or a share of the costs of their higher education divides not only the United Kingdom but the whole European Union. Countries that do not charge fees may see constraints on the size of their higher education provision.

Perhaps it is better to focus on the burden that student loans are likely to place on students after they graduate and their size relative to earning potential. In the USA financial advisers will often encourage students to take on debt only up to the amount of one year’s expected post-graduation income. English student debts are likely to exceed first year earnings of almost every graduate and while repayments are capped, this does suggest that the burden placed on English students is beyond the amount that could be considered sensible.


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