Yesterday, the education secretary Damian Hinds suggested the answer to discontent over tuition fees may be to move to a system of differential fees.
However, it is entirely naive to think that tuition charges could be cut for the cheaper subjects to teach without raising charges for the high-cost subjects well above the £9,250 current capped fee.
Why? The reason is because there are differences in the cost of delivery of different university courses whereby classroom-based subjects such as law and business can generally be delivered at lower cost. The government recognises that it costs more to equip, prepare and teach in a laboratory, ward or studio than in a classroom and supports associated subjects accordingly.
Nevertheless the government contribution to support the teaching of high-cost subjects is insufficient to offset the added costs and there is inevitably an element of cross subsidy within universities in order to deliver the breadth of subject area offered by most universities.
Indeed, were such a proposal to differentiate tuition fees implemented, it is likely that many universities would have to stop teaching in areas such as nursing, engineering and creative arts. Given the benefit of these subjects to society, this would clearly be counterproductive.
Furthermore students recognise the benefits that cross-fertilisation between subjects brings to enrichment of their education. A debate on climate change might involve petrochemical engineers, polar geographers, air particle physicists, economists, political scientists, statisticians and social scientists, among many others. Students may not be fans of higher fees, but neither will they be enthusiastic about the narrowing of their curricula and their opportunities to expand their world view.
The financial return by way of post-graduation and lifetime earnings vary with subject studied. The Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data indicate that subjects such as economics and medicine bring greater return. Mr Hinds has suggested that students studying subjects producing higher earning graduates should pay higher tuition fees because they will ultimately receive a greater benefit from their degree.
However, while we may feel happy charging more to future bankers, isn’t it somewhat perverse to discourage the medical professionals that we obviously want with a higher fee?
Higher education should be an opportunity for social advancement and the fulfilment of ambition. Wouldn’t it be disastrous if students from poorer backgrounds decided not to pursue ambitions to be a doctor, put off by the higher initial cost?
Meanwhile, students with a passion and talent for the creative arts and humanities would be told that their degrees are worth less, a short-sighted approach that would amount to economic barbarism and cultural heresy.
When looking at the LEO data, we also need to remember that we know that a student’s home and pre-university educational background have a substantial influence on post-university earnings.
The universities that have done the heavy lifting in increasing access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to perform poorly in terms of future graduate salaries. If the government intends these universities to charge lower fees without any reimbursement of funding from the Exchequer, then it is punishing the most disadvantaged students rather than encouraging them.
This would not only discourage social mobility but would also decrease the economic added value associated with the enhanced human capital derived from graduates who come to university from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Universities also cross-subsidise from students who don’t use their athletic facilities, buses, refectories, health centres, counselling centres, work placements and so on to those who do.
Should students be charged differential fees according to the "other" services they receive? Should we therefore charge more for a student with mental health problems who requires support and counselling?
The clear answer is no! These subsidies rarely cause student complaint, indeed it is often because we don’t subsidise enough that we receive petition.
Funding for higher education is a complex ecosystem and there is no simple formula for determining the cost of a course based on a rough assumption of what the outcomes for the graduate may be.
With my colleagues across the higher education sector, I look forward to engaging with the government on their review of post-18 funding but lazy potshots at arts courses or bald assumptions on the value of a degree based on earnings do a disservice to our students and our society.
Students need more choice, and universities such as Hertfordshire are increasing our offers in degree apprenticeships and accelerated degrees. Students should also get value for money from their degrees, but I strongly suspect that they have a much more nuanced view of what comprises that value than the government gives them credit for.
Quintin McKellar is the vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire
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