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UK universities: from a Triangle of Sadness to a Brighter Future

UK universities are trapped in a “triangle of sadness” between aspiring students who feel burdened with debt and uncertain prospects, a stretched government that has allowed tuition fees to fall far behind inflation, and beleaguered university staff who feel caught in the middle, argues a paper by Professor Shitij Kapur, Vice-Chancellor of King’s College London.

The paper highlights that the UK has the most indebted graduates in the world. 90 per cent of those who complete a degree take out a loan, with an average debt of around £45,600 ­– a worse situation than even in the US, where roughly 60 per cent of graduates take out a loan, with an average debt of only $28,400.

While the paper recognises UK students who fail to meet a minimum salary threshold do not pay all their loan back, it says it is an “absurd situation” that in England 73 per cent of those who enrolled in 2022/23 may default.

Despite this, the current level at which tuition fees are set is not enough to deliver world-leading teaching and research, Professor Kapur argues, and in the UK the government makes the lowest proportional contribution to university education in the OECD, with students and other private sources contributing more than double the average.

The government’s goal of turning the UK into a “science and technology superpower” is also at risk, the paper says, with UK institutions producing a lower share of the highest-quality academic papers than they once did, at the same time as China’s research output has grown in both volume and quality.