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Student Finance

How much does university cost?

The cost of going to university is something that worries students and parents alike – but how much does it actually cost, and do you have to pay for it upfront? Allow us to explain.

female graduate looking at university with pound signs

Credit: Lana Kray (background), Krakenimages.com (foreground) – Shutterstock

People say that your time as a student will be the best three years of your life. And we agree – it definitely can be.

But once you factor in the cost of tuition fees and affording to live at university, it's easy to assume that being a student will also be one of the most expensive times in your life, too.

To help you separate the fact from the fiction, we've broken down the numbers to work out the cost of going to university, as well as explaining how this is different from what you'll actually end up paying yourself.

You can shave thousands off the cost of going to uni by making sure that you receive all of the bursaries, grants and scholarships you're entitled to.

How much does university cost in the UK?

emojis of money bag and graduate shrugging

Giving an exact figure for how much it costs to go to university is a difficult task because there are so many variables that affect the final total. But, using official data and the findings from our very own National Student Money Survey (NSMS), we can give a rough cost of about £56,000.

How did we reach that figure? Well, the cost of tuition for the majority of students in the UK is approximately £9,000 a year (more detail on that in a sec), while most courses tend to last for three years. So, let's say that tuition fees alone will cost most students about £27,000 over the course of their degree.

Living costs are a little harder to work out than tuition fees as they're subject to a lot more variation. For the purposes of this estimate, we'll use the average annual cost of living from our NSMS – £9,684 (or £29,052 over three years) – but as we'll explain later, this figure could be much higher or lower depending on a few factors.

Anyway, if we take these two figures and apply them to a three-year degree, we can say that it costs about £56,052 to go to university in the UK, breaking down to just under £18,700 a year.

Although this sounds like a scary number, the truth is that you almost certainly won't pay that much, and you definitely won't need to pay that much when you're actually a student. Click here to find out how what you pay is very different from what university really costs.

How much are tuition fees?

Students fromStudying in EnglandStudying in ScotlandStudying in WalesStudying in N Ireland
England£9,250£9,250£9,000£9,250
Scotland£9,250Free£9,000£9,250
Wales£9,250£9,250£9,000£9,250
Northern Ireland£9,250£9,250£9,000£4,395
EU countries£9,250Free£9,000£4,395

As we touched on earlier, there is no one set tuition fee in the UK. Instead, the amount you'll be charged each year depends both on where you're from and where in the UK you'll be studying.

So if, for instance, you wanted to know what the University of Oxford's tuition fees were, the question wouldn't be as simple as "What are Oxford's fees?". Instead, as Oxford is in England, you'd need to check how tuition fees in England vary based on which part of the UK (or beyond) you're from.

Another thing you'll notice from the table above is that while annual tuition fees are either £9,000 or £9,250 for most students in the UK, they can also be substantially lower.

For students from Scotland, your tuition will be completely free if you choose to study north of the border. EU students can also take advantage of this great offer, and while it's unclear if this arrangement will remain in place post-Brexit, the Scottish government have confirmed that EU students in Scotland starting in 2020/21 or earlier will still have free tuition for their whole degree.

Similarly, tuition fees for Northern Irish students studying in Northern Ireland are roughly half (£4,395) what they are in the rest of the UK. And again, while the long-term future is unclear, EU students will also have access to these cut-price fees for the full duration of their courses as long as they started in the 2020/21 year or earlier.

These figures are for full-time students only. If you're looking to study part-time, this guide outlines the tuition fees you'll be charged, as well as the financial support on offer.

Living costs at university

piggy bank with graduate cap

While the media seems intent on focusing on the price of tuition, living costs are arguably the real financial concern for most students in the UK. And again, as we explained earlier, it's almost impossible to give an accurate figure for how much it'll cost you specifically.

That said, here at Save the Student, we're in a better position than most to make a pretty reasonable estimate based on where you'll be studying.

Every year we run the National Student Money Survey, and every year thousands of students respond. We ask students to tell us how much they spend on... well, everything. And as such, we're able to give you a breakdown of how much you're likely to spend each month at university.

The graph below gives an overview of the average UK student's spending habits each month. As you can see, rent is by far the biggest expenditure (£431), accounting for over half of the £807 monthly spend. Meanwhile, food (be it takeaways or groceries bought from the supermarket) is comfortably the second biggest expense, totalling over £100 a month all in.

There are also a number of 'hidden' costs that fall under the categories below. Whether it's paying to rent your graduation gown or stumping up the fee to join a society, things can really add up.

And similarly, different students with different needs may incur different expenses. Your course may require you to buy special equipment or, if you have a disability, you may find there are extra costs associated with going to university (although the Disabled Students' Allowance should help you cover these).

Of course, these figures may well be way off the actual costs of living at the university you're going to.

The price of rent, transport and going out vary massively depending on whereabouts in the UK you are, which is why we're hesitant to put an exact number on the cost of going to university.

Instead, you're much better off looking at how much the average student spends on each of the above categories at each university in the UK. Yeah, we have those numbers! Just check out our guide to student living costs for the full list.

And if you're thinking "university won't cost that much less if I choose to study somewhere else" – well, think again.

To take just one example, our survey found that the average student at the London School of Economics and Politics (LSE) spends £729 a month on rent, and a total of £357 on other expenses. That's £1,086 a month, and £279 more than the average UK student.

Now if we look at another top UK university, the University of St Andrews, things are pretty different, to say the least. Here, the average monthly rent is just £437 and the average total of all other expenses is a comparatively low £256 a month. All in, that's £693 a month – £114 less than the national average and a massive £393 a month less than the cost of living at LSE.

Both LSE and St Andrews are prestigious, top 10 universities. Pretty much the only reason the cost of living is so different is that LSE is in London and St Andrews is in Scotland. That's it. So while students in London do get larger Maintenance Loans to account for this, it really is worth considering these figures when choosing a university.

LSE and St Andrews aren't the only two top-class unis with wildly different costs of living. As our student living costs guide explains, similarly well-known and well-respected universities can be much cheaper or more expensive purely based on their location.

How much do you actually pay for university?

10 pound notes

The numbers we've outlined are big, there's no denying that. But the most important thing to remember when it comes to Student Finance is that the cost of university is different from what you actually pay.

Pretty much all first-time students in the UK are entitled to a Tuition Fee Loan which will cover the cost of tuition in full.

As for your living costs, most students are also eligible for a Maintenance Loan to cover those too. While this is unlikely to fully account for the cost of living at uni (here are the other ways to pay for university that should help you make up the shortfall), the fact remains that it too is a loan that's repaid together with the money you borrowed for your tuition fees.

And this is no ordinary loan. You'll only ever repay 9% of your earnings over a threshold (which varies depending on where in the UK you're from), and if your salary drops below that figure, you automatically stop repaying.

What's more, any outstanding student debt to your name is cancelled approximately 30 years after you graduate – no matter how much or how little you've repaid.

All of this adds up to a pretty sweet deal for students, and one which the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) estimates will result in 83% of graduates having some or all of their debt cancelled in the future.

We explain this in a lot more detail in our guide to repaying your Student Loan, but the take-home message is that you shouldn't be put off by the price tag on uni – there's a good chance you won't pay anything near it!

So, now you know that you don't need to pay £1,000s upfront every year. Now it's time to learn the truth behind these other Student Finance myths.

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