The Speaker
Friday, 12 April 2024 – 15:11

Is it elitist for universities to charge an application fee?

NOTE: This is an opinion article – any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Speaker or any members of its team.

Some universities are reportedly charging students to make an application. Is this right, or as some have argued, elitist?

Universities in the UK have recently come under fire from the press for charging potential students to submit applications for Masters programmes. In a sector that is increasingly being demonised for not being open and accessible enough, it would seem another barrier to entry is only going to cause more publicity problems. There are of course those that say it is a heinous attempt by universities to promote elitism and deny poorer students access to higher education, but of course, the other side has defended their position stating that the fees are merely to cover administrative costs of processing applications. However, they are willing to listen to reason. For example, Oxford, which has been at the centre of this debate, has said that it is “look[ing] forward to the issue being discussed among the wider university community.”

In recent years, the university sector, particularly Oxbridge, has received a huge amount of flack for their apparent elitism and lack of accessibility. It would be wrong to say that universities have not made conscious efforts to improve the system, but then we always seem to be seeing things like this application fee popping up. Perhaps universities, instead of increasing opportunities, are just pushing away poorer students in more subtle ways than before. The average student probably wouldn’t be put off applying for a Master’s degree by a £50 or £75 fee, but it is more a matter of principle. In a country that continually promises to become more meritocratic, money is once more the difference between success and failure. Maybe my example is a bit extreme, but the point stands that a decision to improve one’s education, and in turn generate income for our economy, can be altered by the issue of money.

Furthermore, it is worrying that postgraduate application fees are completely unregulated. There is nothing stopping universities gradually pushing these prices up into the hundreds or even thousands of pounds. This is an extreme example, but if we take the example of tuition fees, which were tripled, there is no reason why postgraduate application fees couldn’t become the next genuine barrier to entry for poorer students.

More realistically, we must take into account that the highest fee, currently charged by Oxford, stands at £75, which is, objectively, not a lot of money. The fee, according to Oxford themselves, goes towards the administrative cost of processing applications. On the surface, this seems like a very reasonable explanation and makes me seem almost petty for disputing it. What we must also take into account, however, is that these fees vary across the board and the elephant in the room is, of course, the fact that most universities don’t even charge a fee. I imagine those universities that don’t charge aren’t quite cruel enough to not be paying their staff to process applications and that money has to come from somewhere. So this fee could just be evidence of bad budgeting at other universities and that wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest, especially as a student at the University of Nottingham, but it seems awfully suspicious that only the higher tier and Russell Group universities seem to be charging these fees.

Universities have defended their decision by saying that, if they didn’t charge the application fees, they would have to cut funding elsewhere, putting their students at a disadvantage. It is no secret that universities are not money-making, profit-orientated machines, so cutting funding, in areas that already struggle financially, would be a considerable blow to take. Not to mention the potential backlash from students whose university experience would once again be stained with disappointing news from the administration.

Another defence of the fees is that they act as a deterrent for students who might apply to Master’s programmes without really taking it seriously. It is no secret that a lot of students, as graduation looms ever closer, start to consider applying for postgraduate courses. Obviously, the vast majority of students applying for Master’s programmes are doing so either because it has been a part of their plan all along, because they want to specialise more within their field or because they want to increase their employability. All of these are perfectly valid reasons to consider postgraduate study, but there are students who apply for different reasons, be it a rose-tinted view of university life, a fear of moving on into the “real world” or just not yet knowing exactly what they want to do. The introduction of the application fee may allow universities to narrow down their applications to students who have considered all their options and are genuinely intent on pursuing a Master’s degree. The theory being that any student who’s not entirely sure about doing a Master’s will most likely be deterred by the application fee. Looking at it from this angle allows us to see that the amount charged, between £40 and £75, sits right in the sweet spot for prospective students. It is not enough to put a significant financial strain on any poorer students who might consider applying, while at the same time being just enough that no student would happily waste that money applying for Master’s programmes they knew that they were unlikely to get into.

It goes without saying that this is something that needs to be addressed not only by the university community but also by politicians. The charging of application fees is, of course, a contentious and polemical issue and as such, there is no right answer, but as always, it is crucially important that we hold our universities accountable for these decisions and make sure they don’t go unnoticed. If it is decided that the fees are necessary, then it is imperative that they are regulated to maintain a level of accessibility to higher education that our country is so rightfully proud of.

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