The one good thing about tuition fees

With university tuition fees so expensive, students are starting to demand more for their money. That's something that will benefit all of us, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

I had a chat with a first-year student in Scotland earlier this week. She was just out of an exam and was still slightly in shock. Not because the exam had been particularly difficult. But because it had been utterly unlike any exam she had ever taken before.

How? Before the exam, she and her fellow students had been told that they would be allowed into the exam room 15 minutes early. The paper would be on the table for them to look at. They came in15 minutes early and the paper was on the table, question side up.

But the really extraordinary thing was that there was no rule of silence during these 15 minutes, nor did they have to stay in the room once they arrived. So the paper and the questions were much discussed, the facts were checked and the answers were planned all before the official three hours began.

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And even when the official timekeeping did begin, people wandered in and out and the vast majority of the examined left before the end.

My young friend did not. That's partly because she is pretty diligent, but also because she is not a Scot. So unlike students from Scotland - she is paying full price for her university education. Given that her years at university are going to cost her going on £100,000 (after you add in interest on the loans), she can't afford to fail. Perhaps those who aren't paying for their own tuition don't feel quite the same.

When tuition fees were first introduced, we were very against them. And I remain very anti the new loan system (which should be seen as an additional rate of income tax rather than anything else). But the one good thing about aligning cost with benefit is that it does force everyone to think about value.

It is the perception thatthere isn't enough value in higher education that has driven applications down 10% since tuition fees were introduced, and the need to get value that makes fee-paying students stay to the end of exams while non-fee-paying students head off for an early lunch.

The good news of course is that if students demand more from their universities in return for their £9,000 a year, they will eventually get it (here's one article that suggests that high fee-paying students "feel entitled to a better university experience"). And we will all benefit from that.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.