04th Nov 2015

The True Cost of a University Education

Carla Ditz assesses the impact of making provision for university tuition fees on families negotiating divorce proceedings

The true cost of a university education – Carla Ditz,an associate solicitor at Family Law in Partnership examines the facts.

It’s that time of the year again. As freshers’ week commences, and thousands of students all over the country embark on their university degrees, most will be contemplating how they will fund the next three years and how long their student debts will hang over their heads.

England currently has the highest university tuition fees in Europe. With 48 per cent of young people gaining qualifications in higher education, the funding of tertiary education will, for most, represent a troubling yet inescapable issue, and one of which family lawyers increasingly need to be aware.

Tuition fees are not a recent phenomenon, having been charged since the 1990s. But following the rapid increase from £1,000 to £3,000 to the present fee cap of £9,000 per year for undergraduate courses, they are a pressing concern for many families, especially those who face them as they seek to recover from the costs of separation or divorce.

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, from September 2015, if studying in England, a student could obtain up to £8,009 p/a for London courses or £5,750 outside London. The sums are reduced for those living at home. There is also student finance available in the sum of £6,820 p/a if part of the course involves a year abroad.

„Non-repayable maintenance grants may be available in England where household income does not exceed £42,620 p/a , a common feature within separated families, as well as a special support grant if students qualify for certain benefits. Bursaries or scholarships may also be provided by the university and some students will seek to fill the gap through part-time work or a bank loan, and significant numbers will seek family help.

Family law angle:

There is no one way in 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 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 is likely to last only to the end of secondary education.

It is relatively uncommon, certainly in older orders, for there to be a provision made for the payment of tertiary tuition fees for the benefit of the children. Previously, we have seen that maintenance provision with respect to the children has continued to 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 or left to be agreed. Nowadays, maintenance provision for children is likely to last only to the end of secondary education and later provision may be omitted entirely for fear of changes that may take place prior to any university attendance.

The result? Many children attaining the age of 18 find themselves bringing an application against a parent through the courts. Such proceedings are likely to be fraught with emotion and can put a strain on their future relationship 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 exercise of delving into the finances of the parents to assess what is reasonable for each to contribute.

Further, to what extent should adult children themselves 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?

As Germany becomes the latest country to abolish tuition fees, the political debate surrounding fees remains a live issue. It would seem, however, that young people in England remain undeterred and the number now entering tertiary education shows no sign of slowing down.

This article first appeared in Solicitors Journal October 2015