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Complete guide to student loans and tuition fees

Get to grips with student finance for undergraduate students, including student loans to help with tuition fees and living costs, plus extra funding on the table.

In this article
How much are tuition fees? How much do you need to live on at university? What student loans are available?
How do I apply for student finance? What extra support is available? How do student loan repayments work?

How much are tuition fees?

What you’ll pay in annual tuition fees will depend on where you’re from, as well as where and what you plan to study. 

Below is a rough guide of the maximum fees you’ll pay, sourced from Ucas. But it’s always best to check with your specific university or college (especially if a course involves a sandwich or work placement year): 

  • If you're from England: up to £9,250 per year when studying in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. 
  • If you're from Scotland: free if you're studying in Scotland (see more below); up to £9,250 per year in England, Wales or Northern Ireland.
  • If you're from Wales: up to £9,000 per year if you're studying in Wales; up to £9,250 in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • If you're from Northern Ireland: up to £4,395 per year if you're studying in Northern Ireland; up to £9,250 in England, Wales or Scotland.

But don’t worry about covering these upfront – there are tuition fee loans available.

Learn more about what your tuition fees will and won’t cover.

How much do you need to live on at university?

As well as your tuition fees, you also need to think about your living costs as a student. The big ones will include accommodation, utility bills, food, transport, books for your course and going out.

However, there are probably many expenses that aren’t on your radar right now, which you’ll inevitably have to cough up for at university. For instance:

  • Will you need to fork out for special software or equipment for your course? 
  • Do your parents currently pay your phone bill? If so, will they continue to do so or will you need to budget for this?
  • Do you have any interests or hobbies that you’re keen to keep up eg regular gym visits

There are lots of ways to save money on these, including finding cheaper alternatives.

But it’s well worth thinking carefully about what costs may crop up – whether one-off expenses or regular outgoings. This was you can budget for them and not be caught short.

Most students work in and out of term-time to support themselves at university, but there is student finance and extra funding available to help with these living costs.

See your living costs for your chosen university with our student budget calculator.

What student loans are available?

Broadly speaking, student finance boils down to two types of student loan: a Tuition Fee Loan and Maintenance Loan.

That said, this will vary a little depending on whether you’re from England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland – check our specific guides to learn about the finance system where you live. 

There are some basic criteria you must satisfy to apply for student finance, mainly:

  • You’re studying at a recognised publicly-funded university or college (or a private institution studying a course approved for public funding).
  • You’re studying a recognised full-time course eg a first degree.
  • This is your first Higher Education course. Note, you may be eligible for some funding for a second course, but this will be limited.
  • You’re a UK national or have ‘settled status’, normally live in your home country, and have been living in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man for three years before the beginning of your course.

Both student loans need to be repaid once you’ve graduated and only once you’re earning above a certain amount. 

Seventy-one percent of students we spoke to said they took out both*, so don’t be put off by the thought of ‘taking out a loan’. The interest rate for a student loan is relatively low compared to other loans out there, plus it won’t affect your credit rating nor chances of getting a mortgage etc.

Tuition Fee Loan

As you can guess from the name, a Tuition Fee Loan covers your tuition fees upfront so you can focus on your studies – you don’t have to worry about these until it comes to repay your student loan

Normally you’re eligible for a Tuition Fee Loan for the duration of your course plus one extra year (eg in case you drop out and return to your course). 

While tuition fees account for things like lectures and seminars on your course, they usually won’t cover books, special equipment or special trips –.you’ll need to pay for these separately.

Your Tuition Fee Loan is paid directly to your university or college, so you don’t even really see it.

Maintenance Loan

The Maintenance Loan is there to help with the living costs we talked about above. Depending on where you’re from, this may be awarded as part of a bundle with a (non-repayable) bursary or grant.

It’s unlikely your Maintenance Loan will cover all of your living costs.

How much you’re eligible for will depend on where you’ll be studying, as well as your family's household income (ie how much your parents earn) – this is referred to as ‘means-tested’ finance. 

This works on a sliding scale, with those from lower household income households eligible for more (and vice versa), to ensure those who need the extra help, get it.

Also, students studying away from home in London are eligible for more than those living at home, or away from home but outside of London.

It’s not compulsory for you and your family to provide details about your household income, but your student finance body can fully assess your situation – and possibly give you more – if you do.

Beyond this maintenance support, it's up to you to make up any financial shortfall to cover your living costs. For instance, over half of students we spoke to told us that they relied on their parents for extra money to help with living costs*.

Other sources of income included working during term (34%), savings (36%) and overdrafts (21%). 

It’s also worth looking into extra funding that might be available depending on your own personal circumstances.

How do I apply for student finance?

You need to apply for student finance from the student finance body in your country eg Student Finance England for English students, Student Awards Agency Scotland for Scottish students etc. You can do this online.

If you’re applying for means-tested support, your parents/guardians will have to provide information about their household income too, including relevant documents as evidence (eg P60s, payslips, tax returns). 

You have to apply each year of your course – not just in your first year. This way, if your circumstances change significantly, this can be reflected in your entitlement (though it’s best to keep your finance body in the loop if your circumstances change throughout the year).

See how much you’re entitled to, when to apply by and more – read our regional finance guides for England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

What extra support is available?

Most universities offer financial support too, particularly  – though not exclusively – to students from lower-income families.

The most common examples are bursaries and scholarships to help with some or all of a student's tuition fees or living costs. This could be a good question to ask at an open day.

Companies, charities and special interest groups are all common sources of funding, too. 

Bursaries and scholarships may be awarded based on academic merit (ie achieving high grades at A-level), a talent or skill, extracurricular achievements.

They may also be awarded for some random and bizarre reasons too – for instance, the Graham Trust provides scholarships to students whose surname is ‘Graham’.

It's definitely worth looking into – a quarter of students we surveyed said they applied for a bursary or scholarship and got it. But be prepared to put the work in to get these, and check the deadline to apply.

If you have a disability or dependants who rely on you for care or financial support (eg children, parents you care for), you may be eligible for grants or allowances to help you.

You’ll be asked about this when applying for student finance, but it’s worth researching what your university, charities, and groups offer too.

And the best thing about all of these forms of extra funding? Unlike student loans, these don’t need to be paid back!

Read our full guide to extra funding.

How do student loan repayments work?

Your Tuition Fee Loan and Maintenance Loan are added together to give the total amount you will have to repay, plus interest. 

Interest is charged from the day you receive your first loan payment and will continue to accumulate until your loan is repaid in full (or until it’s wiped out – this occurs after 25-35 years depending on where you’re applying for finance).

The interest you pay is linked to the rate of inflation, which changes each year; therefore the value of the amount you repay will be roughly the same in terms of the value of what you borrowed.

You’ll only begin repaying your loan after you leave your course and only once you’re earning above the minimum repayment threshold. In England and Wales, this threshold is £25,725; in Scotland and Northern Ireland, it’s £18,935. 

If your salary ever drops below this minimum threshold (eg you’re between jobs, you go travelling), your repayments will stop until you’re earning above this again. Plus, you’ll only repay 9% of whatever you’re earning above the threshold where you live.

And to keep things simple, this is repaid directly to the Student Loans Company by your employer as part of your monthly salary deductions (a bit like a form of tax). If you’re self-employed, this will be repaid through your self-assessment tax return.

Learn more in our full guide to repaying your student loan.

Get financially ready for uni

Work out how much you’ll need to budget for at university, try our student budget calculator.

We also have further advice on cutting your living costs, how dropping out affects your student finance and more. Take a look at our full university and student finance area.

 

About our research

* Which? University Student Survey, conducted by YouthSight on behalf of Which?, surveying 3,874 undergraduate students at UK universities between 20 March and 12 April 2019.

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