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The price and value of higher education

The principal of the University of St Andrews, Professor Louise Richardson, is courting controversy with her statement that £9000 a year is "very little" to pay for an education at Scotland's oldest university.

Acknowledging this will be unpopular with cash-strapped students. Prof Richardson says in an interview with The Herald that a degree from St Andrews is worth a great deal more than the £36,000 cost of a four-year honours course. In financial terms, when calculated as a fraction of a lifetime's graduate earnings, a degree from St Andrews (and other Scottish universities) is worth far more than £36,000. Purists might also argue that the value of high-quality education is beyond price.

The complex structure of fees at UK universities means most potential students, other than those from Scotland, have to calculate whether they can afford to go to university and whether the £9000 top price students from the rest of the UK (RUK) pay at some Scottish institutions is value for money.

St Andrews, along with other Scottish universities, has seen an increase in applicants from the rest of the UK, indicating that the £9000 a year tuition cost is not a deterrent. What cannot be known from the numbers is whether this means St Andrews is an increasingly popular choice among the wealthy (numbers of foreign students from outwith the EU paying even higher fees bear this out) or whether it also remains a target university for less well-off RUK students who are willing to take out loans to pay for a prestigious degree and for those who may qualify for scholarships and bursaries.

In that regard, St Andrews has been criticised for the low numbers of its students who come from the most deprived communities in Scotland. A 40% increase in such applications is good news even if not all are accepted, because it means the access teams are delivering the message that Scotland's universities are open to students from poor areas as well as members of the royal family.

As Prof Richardson puts it: "We need to ensure that people smart enough to get in here can afford to get in here."

St Andrews has criticised the Scottish education system for failing to enable the brightest children from deprived areas to gain the exam grades required for university entry. The efforts now being made by a number of Scottish universities to provide access courses and Advanced Higher classes are recognition that too many young people fail to reach their potential simply because of where they come from.

One of the great benefits of a university education is mixing with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, whether they pay nothing or tens of thousands of pounds for tuition. But that happens when universities can attract the top academics and the best students and provide financial support for those who need it. Graduates of Scottish universities are increasingly being asked to contribute to endowments which, through international fundraising campaigns among alumni and endowments, reached nearly £33 million last year.

The National Union of Students correctly points out that most new graduates have to repay large student loans for living costs, even without the added burden of tuition fees, and will find it difficult to donate to their university. The trend, as with all charitable giving, is to be welcomed. There is a strong case for the baby-boomer generation, which had grants covering living costs and tuition and which recognises the worth of a degree from a Scottish university and how much of a bar tuition fees and living costs can be, putting something back.

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