Policy Papers

Going to university: funding, costs, benefits

Carol Dyhouse |

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Executive Summary

  • Questions about the value of higher education have become increasingly prominent in the context of the government's ambitious aim to expand access whilst expecting students and their families to shoulder more of the cost.
  • This paper examines expectations and experiences in going to university before and after the Second World War, demonstrating the complexity of answering such questions.
  • A historical perspective shows that the long term benefits of higher education (to the individual and the economy) are not immediately evident, and are therefore hard to factor into the kind of economic cost-benefit analyses promoted within recent policy debates.
  • The advantages provided by higher education also vary according to a range of factors: there is no 'one size fits all' experience of this highly diverse sector.
  • This varying impact of higher education is particularly prominent when gender is taken into account.
  • Higher education cannot be understood purely in economic terms - adopting a consumer mentality in assessing experiences of university would be an impoverishment of the capacity of higher education to play a more profound role in the lives of individuals.


There have been seismic changes in the scale and structure of higher education over the last century, and student experience has changed dramatically. 'Going to university', an experience confined to less than 2% of 18-year olds before the Second World War, is now almost a rite of passage for something like a third of young people in the UK. The present government aims to see half of all 18 to 30 year olds experiencing some form of higher education. There were around 50,000 students in some 30 universities/university colleges in Britain in 1939. In 2005 the number of higher education institutions in the UK stood at 168, and in 2003/4 the number of first-year students in publicly funded HEIs rose above one million for the first time. Some of the most dramatic social changes in higher education are to do with gender. A 'typical' university student at the beginning of the last century was a full-time undergraduate male, whereas the part-time female student is arguably more representative of higher education today. In 1939 women constituted less than a quarter of the university student population, a proportion which remained fairly stable until the late 1960s, when it began slowly to rise. The real turning point came in the 1970s, after which the growth in female participation seemed inexorable, although it has steadied in recent years. Women overtook men as a proportion of UK undergraduates in 1996/7. In 2005/6, 57% of first degree graduates were women.

Students and funding: before the Second World War

It is often assumed that going to university before the Second World War was a privilege confined to young people from the middle and upper classes. This was very far from being the case. The popular image of Oxford and Cambridge as finishing schools for young gentlemen, with minorities of scholarship boys and a few women's colleges tacked on to the perimeters is not too much of a distortion, but the civic, or 'provincial' universities were very different.

Richard Hoggart, whose own background was far from being 'well-to-do', 'went up' to his local University of Leeds in 1936. Later, in his autobiography, he attempted a social portrait of the student body in Leeds between the wars. There had been around 1700 students (two women to every seven men), the great majority of them (1300) being local. They fell into 'three easily identifiable, locally drawn groups'. The first group were unambiguously middle class, the sons of millowners studying technological subjects in order to take over family businesses, or 'the gilded youth of West Yorks coming in from the hills each day in two-seater sports coupes', many of them studying medicine. The middle group were less well off, but had parents with what we would call 'cultural capital' today. They could either shoulder fees 'or find charities which would pay' for the education of the children of parsons, teachers and the like. The third group were 'the really local and the poorest', lower-middle and working-class students on scholarships or (more importantly) Board of Education grants for intending teachers. These were the 'RSTs' or Recognised Students in Training, who were committed to following their degrees with one year's teacher training and a certain number of years' school teaching: if they chose not to honour this commitment, they were in danger of being asked to repay their grants. Students in this third group (in which Hoggart numbered himself) had to be economical in their habits, they dressed cheaply, and commuted to the university daily by bus or by tram. The picture accords in many respects with that drawn by 'Bruce Truscott' in Redbrick University, which was published in 1943. In the latter, the world of 'Bill Jones', studying at a provincial university not all that removed from 'Drabtown Municipal School for Boys', was depicted as having nothing whatsoever in common with the dreaming spires and romantic quadrangles of Oxford.

'Student grants' came in the form of state, municipal and county scholarships, all hotly competed for. State scholarships were highly prized, few and far between, and tended to go to students setting their sights on Oxford or Cambridge. The 'system' of local authority provision was patchy and inconsistent across the country, with some authorities making much more generous provision than others. There were also a mass of small scholarships and bursaries awarded by schools, universities and charitable bodies, which could be pieced together by the enterprising and industrious. But probably the most important source of funding for students from poorer homes, and for women particularly, came in the form of grants from the Board of Education, made in return for a 'pledge' or commitment to teaching as a career following graduation. In a detailed investigation of student experiences between the wars which was carried out by the author in the 1990s, many elderly men and women recalled that the Board of Education grants had been a lifeline, emphasising that without them they would have had no opportunity of continuing their studies. However, the grants did commit their recipients to school teaching, a destination which was not always welcomed. The respondents included many who admitted that in spite of having benefited from Board of Education scholarships, they had never had any desire to teach. Some were driven to pay back their grants after graduation rather than face conscription in the classroom.

The securing of funding was a chancy business and most students depended heavily on their families. Families showed impressive resourcefulness in this respect, especially during the Depression, and often in the face of unemployment and hardship. Elderly graduates told stories of how mothers took in washing, made space for lodgers, kept chickens and went charring to scrimp resources in order to maintain sons and daughters at college. There was a good deal of reliance on wider kin: grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relations often contributed small amounts which were pieced together to make education possible.

Students and funding since 1945

The 'class divide' between Oxford, Cambridge and 'the red bricks' continued to make a marked impression on observers. Ferdynand Zweig, whose portrait of The Student in the Age of Anxiety, a comparative study of a group of (mainly male) students in Oxford and Manchester, was published in 1963, noted that none of the students in his Manchester sample had fathers who were 'landed gentry, generals, admirals, ambassadors or top-rank scientists', as was often the case at Oxford. Zweig found his students a troubled lot, lacking in exuberance and anxious about a great many things: among them, money, work, sex, religion and the atom bomb. But the 'golden age' of student grants was just beginning.

The Ministry of Education referred the question of student grants to the Anderson Committee, which reported in 1960. This recommended a national system whereby every student enrolling on a degree course for the first time became eligible for a grant towards tuition fees and maintenance, the actual level of grant depending on student income. Interestingly, they argued against any differentiation between the 'right' of girls and boys to mandatory student grants, suggesting that it would be a mistake to try to measure the benefits of a university education solely in terms of earning capacity. Previous forms of provision had almost always privileged boys. By 1963 nearly 70% of students were receiving grants almost wholly from public funds. Under these conditions the experience of 'going to university' was reshaped in important ways, not least because more young people could afford to choose universities away from home. Students at Oxford and Cambridge secured what was in effect a double subsidy from public funds, since both the university and their college fees were paid for them.

The golden age did not last long: inflation soon chipped away at the value of maintenance allowances, but at least students got their tuition fees paid - these escaped the parental means test applicable to maintenance. A darker age set in with the introduction of student loans in 1990; maintenance grants were at first frozen, and then reduced annually until 1998. Sensing opportunity, the banks began to court student customers with lending packages and various incentives from around this time. From 1998 students in England were required to pay a standard contribution to the cost of their tuition fees. Between 2002 and 2004 the question of whether they could and should pay more came to dominate the political agenda. The Labour government fought a knife-edge battle to secure the introduction of what became known as 'top up fees': variable tuition fees, currently capped at £3000 pa. would be charged by universities from 2006. These would not be payable 'upfront' but would be repaid by the student after graduation, in instalments, once his or her earnings reached a certain threshold (currently £15000 pa).

Expectations, experiences and outcomes: students graduating before the Second World War

In the 1930s young people aspired to university for a variety of reasons: a desire to study a subject, to 'improve themselves' or their prospects, because of parental or teacher encouragement, or, in the comparatively small proportion of families with a history of higher education in this period, simply because it was taken for granted. Detailed questionnaires which were returned to the author by just under 600 men and 500 women who had graduated from non-Oxbridge universities in this period showed that a much larger proportion of men than women had clear vocational aspirations on beginning study. Nevertheless, a majority of women remembered that they had had strong economic reasons for continuing study, and their memories of the frustrations they had experienced in finding jobs (outside teaching) makes it clear that they did not regard going to university simply in terms of personal enrichment. Amongst both men and women, 'a secure job with a pension' was by far the most commonly expressed goal.

Choice of subject, in this period, was strongly linked to gender and to social class. The sons of the middle class who attended 'provincial' universities were highly likely to choose engineering or medicine, many remembering that their fathers had encouraged this choice. Men lower down the social scale, often subsidised by Board of Education grants, were freer to opt for arts subjects. Formal and informal barriers still operated against women choosing certain subjects (such as quotas, in medicine, and the persistence of single-sex medical schools) Those women who studied scientific subjects suffered particular difficulties in finding jobs, although some found the situation easier in the war years.

How did graduates assess the value of their university education in this period? There were interesting differences between men and women's accounts in this respect, when they recalled their experiences half a century later. In terms of better jobs and social mobility there is no doubt that the men profited much more straightforwardly. Less than half of the sample of male graduates in the study came from backgrounds in social classes I and II (i.e. over half came from Classes III, IV and V, the working classes). Yet just about all of them ended up in the classes I and II. The story was more complex for the women, a majority of whom married, either leaving work, or continuing sporadically in employment. Unmarried women who remained in employment were mainly in teaching. Over their working lives, they were far less likely to be promoted than the men.

Nonetheless, when it came to a subjective assessment of the 'value' of a higher education in this period, more women than men used expressive rather than instrumental criteria in their judgements, often declaring that going to university had been 'a gift beyond price', making ' all the difference in the world' to their lives. They frequently confessed to having forged friendships at college which had lasted a lifetime, and argued that the 'investment' in higher education was something that they felt enabled to bequeath to their children.

Expectations, experiences and outcomes: students graduating since 1945

Gender continued as important as class in shaping university experience during the 1950s and early 1960s. Formal and informal patterns of discrimination (quotas in medicine, the dominance of single-sex colleges in Oxford and Cambridge) helped to keep the lid on any expansion in the proportion of women students, which remained at an even lower level than in the mid 1920s. (Around 25%). The expansion in provision for science and technology in universities at this time opened more opportunities for men. Bright female school-leavers were more likely to be channelled into teacher training colleges than universities: shortages in teacher supply were a recurrent anxiety after the war. Careers advice was often experienced as farcical by women graduates in the 1950s and the media ran endless debates about whether a university education was a waste of money in the case of daughters. Women were marrying at ever younger ages - in many cases, shortly after leaving school.

All this only began to change in the late 1960s, with a real turning point around the early 1970s. The new universities of the 1960s, offering new kinds of curricula in the arts, particularly, proved especially attractive to women. Meanwhile the rise of 'second wave' feminism fostered equality legislation and forced an end to some of the more discriminatory practices in higher education and the labour market. The politically fraught process whereby formerly single-sex colleges in Oxford and Cambridge 'went coeducational' was also crucial in opening up more opportunities even in these institutions for girls. Meanwhile, the advent of the contraceptive pill began to reverse the trend to early marriages: girls began to take more control over their lives and their educational successes and career aspirations changed accordingly.

Considering the value of a university education in more recent history is a complex task. There is no longer anything remotely resembling a 'typical student'. School-leavers going to university in the 1980s may have had their expectations of university life influenced more by the cult television comedy series, The Young Ones than by the Varsity types of Brideshead Revisited. But it is interesting to observe that just as the numbers of women in undergraduate populations began to rocket, the stereotypes remained so decidedly male. Student experience is now more varied than ever: shaped by gender, ethnicity, age and social class. Equally, 168 institutions of higher education allow for far more complex categorisation than the old distinction between 'Oxbridge' and 'Redbrick', 'Old' and 'New', or 'Pre or Post '94 institutions'


Different kinds of student derive different kinds of advantage from a university education, as has been the case through history. Talk of 'a graduate premium' on earning power sometimes obscures this. Women, since first admitted to universities in the late-nineteenth century, have benefited less in straight economic terms from their degrees than their male counterparts. New research by Jones and Dickerson for the EOC suggests that one in eight female graduates are working in low-level jobs, and that the proportion of women graduates in the lowest level jobs has increased from 5.4% to 13.2% since 1995. A recent report commissioned from PricewaterhouseCoopers by Universities UK claims that 'gross additional lifetime earnings' are currently about £160,000, or 20-25% more for those with a higher educational qualification than for those whose formal education ended with A levels. But there is wide variation according to subject studied. Medicine and dentistry, for instance, are calculated to add a lifetime earnings premium of £340,000, compared with only £34,949 for arts subjects. The study also suggests that men from lower socio- economic backgrounds derive the greatest financial benefit from their degrees.

The Labour government's commitment to making individuals pay more for their university education was based on the position that free tuition had privileged the better off, since young people from middle class families were more likely to go to university. The issue remains highly controversial. There are clearly public as well as private benefits from higher education. Some would argue that the access policies and bursary provision now increasingly demanded from universities represents the dereliction, by the government, of some of its own responsibility for wealth redistribution through taxation. And there is widespread unease about mounting levels of student debt, in a society where young people increasingly see their futures blighted by rising house prices and insecurity about pensions.

It has become commonplace to observe that students who pay more for their education become 'customers' and may increasingly behave like such, demanding value for money from their tutors and courses. But few would maintain that the value of a higher education resides wholly in economics - there are clearly a host of less quantifiable benefits. These range from improvements in health through the diminution of crime rates to better parenting skills, enhanced awareness of citizenship and increased social cohesion. In the last analysis, education could be seen as transformative of the individual self, an unfashionable notion amongst postmodernists perhaps, but one which was suggested in many of the questionnaires returned by elderly men and women graduates. But this is an insight which may become clear only many years after graduation. The recent tendency in policy debates to quantify the 'value added' by a degree serves to obscure these wider effects.

Further Reading

C. Dyhouse, Students: A Gendered History (London, Routledge: 2006)

ESRC-funded research reports

R 000 237596, 'The value of a university education as perceived by students and their families before the war' (2000)
RES-000-22-0139, 'Gaining places: stagnation and growth in the proportion of women in universities' (2004)

P. Jones and A.P. Dickerson, Poor Returns: Winners and Losers in the Job Market, EOC Report (2007)

PricewaterhouseCoopers for Universities UK, The Economic Benefits of a Degree (2007)

A.J. Scott, A. Lewis and S.E.G. Lea, Student Debt; The Causes and Consequences of Undergraduate Borrowing in the UK ( Bristol, Policy Press: 2001)

W.A.C. Stewart, Higher Education in Postwar Britain (Basingstoke, Macmillan: 1989)


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