11th Sep 2017

Funding University Fees Following Divorce

In this blog Family Law in Partnership associate Carla Ditz explains why parents negotiating financial arrangements on a divorce should make provision for their children’s university fees.

It’s that time of the year again. As Fresher’s Week approaches and thousands of students all over the country embark on their university degree courses, most will be contemplating how they will fund their degree courses and how long their student debts will hang over their heads. A recent report in The Independent suggested that university fees in England are the highest in the industrialised world. As such the funding of tertiary education will, for most young people, represent a troubling yet inescapable issue. For the children of divorcing parents it can be even more of a concern.

Tuition fees are not a recent phenomenon having been introduced by the Labour Government in 1998. But following the rapid increase from £1,000 to £3,000 to the present fee cap of £9,250 per year for undergraduate courses, they are a pressing concern for many families. This is particularly so for those who are in the midst of family separation and where the finances are now to be split to fund two households as opposed to one.

Funding options:

With the rise in tuition fees, various funding options have been increasingly relied upon:

  • Many students will apply for funding from Student Finance England (SFE) or Student Finance Wales (SFW) to cover the costs of university tuition fees. Such monies arrive in the form of a loan, repaid by the student once their own income exceeds £21,000 per annum (p/a) (for courses commencing 1 September 2012). Also available from SFE/SFW are maintenance loans, which, although means tested, can help with overall living expenses while studying. By way of example, if studying in England, a student could obtain up to £11,002 p/a for London courses or £8,430 p/a outside London. The sums are reduced for those living at home. There is also student finance available in the sum of £9,654 p/a if part of the course involves a year abroad.
  • With maintenance grants and Special Support Grants no longer available in England for new students, students are relying more and more on student loans.  Learning grants are however available from SFW where taxable household income is £50,020 or below. The student may also be able to access a Special Support Grant from SFW which comes to £5,161 per year for the academic year 2017/2018. Bursaries, Scholarships and Grants may also be provided by the university itself and some students will seek to fill the gap through part-time work or a bank loan, and significant numbers will seek family help.

For further information on funding options see our blog: How to Fund a University Education – Sources of Funding for Students Embarking on Tertiary Education.

Family law angle:

There is no one way by which families or the Courts address the question of university funding. Usually, it is dealt with as part of the overall financial negotiation within divorce proceedings. But at the time of these negotiations, the topic of tertiary education is likely to have a lower level of priority than what might appear to be the more pressing issues of housing and outgoings. Ultimately, arrangements can end up being considered in a rushed way at the conclusion of a case, if at all.

Nowadays, maintenance provision for children within a financial arrangements order on divorce is likely to last only until the end of secondary education. It is relatively uncommon, certainly in older orders, for provision to be made for the payment of tertiary tuition fees for the benefit of the children. Where financial provision is made for tertiary education, the maintenance provision will usually continue only until the end of the first degree course, with separate provision being made for the children to be paid directly while they are away from home.

The impact of failing to provide for maintenance for children to continue beyond their secondary education can be huge. Many children attaining the age of 18 may find themselves having to bring an application against one or both of their parents through the courts depending on whether or not there was an order in force, with respect to that child. Where an adult child does bring such a case, such proceedings are likely to be fraught with emotion and can put a strain on their future relationship with their parents that may last for years. In the absence of agreement between the parties, the Court will need to determine the contributions to be made by each parent, requiring an examination of the finances of the parents to assess what is reasonable for each to contribute.

When addressing this issue as part of the overall financial arrangements on divorce it is worth considering to what extent adult children themselves should be expected to contribute towards their tertiary education through student or commercial loans and a part-time job, for example. This is an equally important consideration for practitioners when preparing their client’s case.

The future?

Germany abolished university tuition fees back in 2014 and it seems likely that there will be some changes made to the system here over the next few years. Tuition fees have become a hot topic for both the Government and the Opposition as a means of attracting young voters. It remains to be seen how the political agenda will shape the finances of young people going forward.

For further information see our blog: How to Fund a University Education – Sources of Funding for Students Embarking on Tertiary Education.

At Family Law in Partnership our specialist family lawyers have a wealth of experience in advising clients on what is fair, what is reasonable and what is realistic, whether they are involved in a negotiated settlement or whether a Judge is to make the final decision. We draw on our years of experience to advise and enable clients to make informed and well considered choices when reaching a financial settlement. Read more on Divorce Finances & Separation Finances here, or contact any of our specialist family lawyers: T: 020 7420 5000 E: hello@flip.co.uk.

This blog is an update of a blog posted on 4 November 2015.