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What's the story behind tuition fees? blog

What’s the story behind ‘tuition fees’?


How has the phrase ‘tuition fees’ framed students’ expectations of university life?

Louise Clifton examines the implications of these words and considers what can be done to change the conversation.


Tuition fees…two words that have ricocheted around the public forum and invaded student halls over the last two decades.

This transaction of payment for tuition became a part of the higher education lexicon 20 years ago. It is a clear, brash double-act that sanctifies the narrative that you pay, you get.

The idea that these two words weren’t the best words to describe the university experience was mooted by David Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor of London South Bank University, at the 2018 AUA conference.

It struck me as the simplest idea. The relentless discussions about value for money and the student as a consumer can only be impoverished by choosing such reductionist language.

It shackles our idea of what the student gets in return for their money. How can we capture the essence, relationships, learning, growth and challenges that university life brings, by talking about it in such a confined way?

In fact, not only are these two words not the best words to use, they demonstrate the dangerous power of choosing the wrong words.

In an article by Which? University, the first sentence sets the scene:

Just because you’re footing a bigger bill than previous students doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get more for your money.”

The article then goes on to describe what students get (and notably, don’t get) for their money. And so the pervasive idea of getting bang-for-buck grows increasingly attached to these two little words.

And it’s not just what the words describe that’s damaging, but the actual process of exchange: in an article about how tuition fees have ruined university life, lecturer Debbie Lisle said “when you monetise, the ethos changes, the language changes.


Changing the conversation

‘If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation’*

Whilst it’s unlikely we’ll be able to reverse the years of negative debate propagated by linking tuition and fees, there is an opportunity to take charge of the narrative.

One option is to consider what an alternative might be. In his keynote, David Phoenix suggested that the phrase ‘university fees’ better grasped the broader, whole-wheat nature of universities.

University fees, he proposed, acknowledged the idea that students were paying for access to the university as a whole. Perhaps this is only a marginal gain on ‘tuition fees’, but at least it’s something on the table.

Finding words that enhance people’s perception and expectation beyond a money-for-contact hours exchange will be a challenge. How do we find the precisely right words that acknowledge all the good things about university life: the personal expansion and growth of both students and staff; being part of, and contributing to, a community; and being challenged to provoke and question?


Start at the beginning

We need to go back to the beginning. To find our purpose and interrogate why we are here, and why we do what we do. Without this understanding we’re unable to define ourselves, as professionals, universities or as a sector.

This is our opportunity to take responsibility for the narrative that both institutions and higher education can tell. And we need to shout it from the roof tops, not discuss it behind closed doors with policy makers.

We need to choose the words (carefully) that tell the story about our purpose. Because stories connect people in the most fundamentally human way. And if we are to start to change public perception then we need to reach people on a human level.

So here is our starting point. Go back to your mission statement, values and vision. What do they say that is different, authentic, challenging, or even better…exciting?

It’s time to take responsibility for the story we want to tell.


*quote from Don Draper, Mad Men

Louise Clifton pictureLouise Clifton is Director of Marketing, Communications and Operations at Invisible Grail. Louise’ s focus is examining the practicalities of how the language we choose to use can impact peoples’ experiences of higher education.

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Published Monday 30 April 2018

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