The claims

“Can the Prime Minister confirm that after his changes are introduced, English students will pay the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world?”
Labour leader Ed Miliband, PMQs, 8 December 2010

“The figures are well-known about what students will pay.
They are much lower than what students for instance pay
in the United States.”

David Cameron, PMQs, 8 December 2010

The background

Tutition fees have become the biggest test of the Coalition yet – and in advance of tomorrow’s vote, the party leaders were having a dress rehersal in the Commons today. Ed Miliband thinks he can gain from a divided Liberal Democrat party – so he chose to highlight the cost of a higher education in Britain compared to the rest of the world.

The analysis

FactCheck called the office of Shadow Business Secretary John Denham to find out where the “highest fees” claim came from.

Note his careful use of the phrase ‘public universities’. That doesn’t include the many private institutions in the US, including the Ivy League’s Harvard and Yale which are among the most expensive in the world. In contrast here in Britain the vast majority are public – currently just two are private.

We were told the claim was from an article written by respected education campaigner Sir Peter Lampl – who founded the Sutton Trust, which aims to get more students from disadvantaged backgrounds into universities.

In the Times last month he wrote that “tuition fees in England will become by far the highest charged by publicly funded universities around the world”.

The Department for Business are responsible for universities. They sent FactCheck their research about the cost of education in the States: it shows average tuition fees charged by public universities in the US in 2009-10 were £4,252 a year in a student’s home state and £11,234 in another state. So that’s an annual average of £7,743 – which is lower that the the proposed maximum of £9,000.

The department’s source was the College Board in the US. We got in touch with them directly, and they provided more recent figures showing costs have gone up. Average tuition fees at public colleges are now £4,808 and £17,257 at private institutions – so across all universities the average is now actually £11,032.  That’s actually higher than what could be charged here.

A list of the most expensive US public universities shows the costliest is the University of Pittsburgh – with fees of £8,148 a year.

Back here, Universities UK said it couldn’t say what universities would charge after 2012, when higher fees are introduced. And that’s an important point – because it’s safe to presume not all universities will charge the top limit of £9,000. So, we just don’t yet know who will charge what and so what the average will be.

FactCheck didn’t forget about the rest of the world – but fees in Europe, Canada and Australia are all considerably lower than in the States.

The verdict

The latest figures from the College Board show that the average tuition fees at public universities in the US are £4,808 a year – considerably lower than the £9,000 limit universities will be able to charge here.

So, Mr Miliband seems right on fees in England at public institutions being among the highest in the industrialised world. For that we’ve got to give him a fact rating, and the Prime Minister a fiction rating.

Unless we give Mr Cameron the benefit of the doubt – and say he was either taking the average of public and private (which we know is £11,032), or just looking at private (more like £19,000 a year).

It’s also important to remember that in this country there will be a student support package in place which will mitigate these costs for some of the poorest students.