Moving from the Public to the Private Funding of English Higher Education: The Imposition of Student Tuition Fees

  • Ourania FilippakouEmail author
  • Ted Tapper
Part of the SpringerBriefs in Education book series (BRIEFSEDUCAT)


The imposition of student tuition fees has proven to be one of the most divisive policy issues in the history of British higher education and is still far from resolved. The UGC operated on the basis of public funding and higher education was considered to be a public good. However, the economic austerity of the 1970s meant that the quinquennial grant that government made available started to decline. Then there were those, strongly influenced by the work of the Institute of Economic Affairs who started to insist that it was a private good and their influence grew in the years of the Thatcher Governments, especially when Sir Keith Joseph was the minister responsible for higher education. However, thanks to the opposition of Conservative MPs no fees were imposed upon home-based students in the years of Thatcher Governments. That move only took place after the 1997 Dearing Enquiry and was implemented by a Labour Government led by Tony Blair. The ceiling was initially set as a top-up fee at a maximum of £1,000 per annum, although this was raised to £3,000 after the 2004 Higher Education Act and £9,000 by the subsequent Conservative-Liberal/Democratic coalition. Initially there were manoeuvres to exempt students who chose certain subjects (STEM subjects) from the payment of fees and to preserve maintenance grants. However, these moves failed and the expectation is that the institutions will themselves make resources available to selected students, under the auspices of the Office for Fair Access, out of their fee income. The new universities have all gravitated towards charging the maximum permitted fee levels. Over time institutions have steadily increased their fees to the maximum permitted level and tuition fees remain a big political issue with the Labour Party now committed to restore public funding. There is also no doubt that the newly created Office for Students will seek ways to link fee levels to the quality of the teaching and learning process. Thus the imposition of fees will lead to a much tighter auditing of the work of the higher education institutions.


Variable fees Dearing report STEM subjects Maintenance grants Expanding fee rises 


  1. McGettigan, A. (2013). The great university gamble: Money, markets and the future of higher education. London: Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  2. National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (1997). Higher education in the learning society. NCIHE. Report 1. London: HMSO.Google Scholar
  3. Salter, B., & Tapper, T. (1994). The state and higher education. Ilford: Woburn Press.Google Scholar
  4. Shattock, M. (2012). Making policy in British higher education, 1945–2011. Maidenhead: McGraw-Hill Education.Google Scholar
  5. Tapper, T. (2007). The governance of British higher education: The struggle for policy control. Dordrecht: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Williams, G. (2018). The United Kingdom divided: contested income-contingent loans. In D. Palfreyman, T. Tapper & S. Thomas (Eds.), Towards the private funding of higher education. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar

Electronic Sources and Websites

  1. Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) (2018). Data and analysis: Higher education providers: Finances. Retrieved March 30, 2018, from

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of EducationBrunel University LondonUxbridgeUK
  2. 2.Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies (OxCheps)New College, OxfordOxfordUK

Personalised recommendations