Most students pay £9,250 a year in tuition fees – but only 40% to 45% of this is spent on tuition, the report found.
University students receive teaching worth less than half of their £9,250 fee in England, according to an influential thinktank that says universities need to be more honest with students about how their fees are spent.
A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) said that teaching for undergraduates amounts to just 40%-45% of the current fee, with most of the remainder spent on valuable facilities such as libraries and services including information technology and student support.
But few universities publish easily digestible information about their spending on students, the report found. “It is easier to discover where the money goes when buying an iPhone than it is for a degree,” the authors said.
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A survey by Hepi found that 74% of students want more information on where their fees go, with few of them in favour of spending on recruitment or advertising.
“Students and their unions have been clamouring for information about where their fees go for years – yet despite nudges from government and sector bodies, research suggests that little progress has been made,” said Jim Dickinson, a co-author of the report.
“Regardless of the balance between the state and student in funding higher education, students want and deserve to know where the money goes.”
The thinktank recommends that the tuition fee should be relabelled as a “student fee” to avoid confusion about costs and value for money in undergraduate courses.
The call comes after mounting disquiet over student tuition fees and debt, with a government review of tertiary funding under way, as well as rumours of some universities under financial pressure.
The report found that some universities did clearly set out their spending, including Nottingham Trent University and Essex University. At Essex, direct teaching costs consume 45% of tuition fees, while administrative support and teaching buildings account for 18%.
Yvonne Hawkins, a director of the Office for Students that regulates higher education in England, said: “Ensuring transparency and accountability for how student fees are spent is important and we will work with students to determine what information they would find most meaningful.”
Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of the lobbying group Universities UK, said it was working with its members on guidance explaining how fee income is spent and student value for money, which it plans to publish shortly.
The Hepi report entitled, Where do student fees really go?, also warned that future cuts in tuition fees, to as low as £6,500 according to some accounts, would affect services for students.
“It is clear that any reduction in the amount of funding that institutions receive for each student is likely to lead to cuts in areas that directly benefit students and activities that help to define our world-class higher education sector,” the report concluded.
UK universities making slow progress on equality,
Meanwhile, a report by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association found that the largest staff pay gaps in higher education are for black men and women when compared with their white counterparts.
The UCEA said it saw “clear evidence” of significant pay penalties for ethnic minorities, with black women and men earning the least, on average, relative to white men. In particular, it found that lower pay for minority ethnic women was much more likely to be due to ethnicity than gender.
“While the sector’s formidable work to improve women’s careers should be noted, more attention is required for interventions to further improve the ethnic diversity of recruitment,” said Viola Salvestrini, the report’s author.