Johnson’s mooted fees plan ‘incredibly short-sighted’

Experts say using differential fees to direct students towards subjects goes against the purpose of higher education, and is also unlikely to work

July 20, 2020
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The Prime Minister’s suggestion that the UK could follow in Australia’s footsteps and charge higher fees for arts degrees than for STEM subjects has been criticised by higher education experts.

In a recent interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Boris Johnson was asked if he was “drawn to the Australian government’s plans to double university fees for some future arts students in order to fund cheaper degrees in subjects such as maths and engineering”.

Mr Johnson told the paper that the government was “looking very much at pricing mechanisms”.

The introduction of higher fees in 2012 led to all institutions charging the maximum, but “in reality, it would have been much more sensible if courses had been differently priced. We are certainly looking at all that,” he said.

However, higher education experts told Times Higher Education that it would be wrong to penalise students who want to take arts subjects, which are very valuable to society – and also that the idea would be unlikely to have the desired effect.

Mary Curnock Cook, the former chief executive of Ucas, said: “I can’t help feeling that charging a higher price for something that the government apparently values less would risk sending terribly confusing messages to potential students.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the idea was “a bit of nonsense”.

“The reason students choose subjects isn’t to do with price. You won’t get someone who wanted to do history suddenly deciding they want to do physics,” he said.

Mr Hillman also pointed out that the issue has already been looked into “many, many times”, most recently in Philip Augar’s review of post-18 educational funding, which recommended a fee reduction that would be topped up by the government depending on the courses’ running costs but rejected differential fees.

The problem is that pricing for different subjects then becomes an “intensely political decision based on what subjects have political favour at the time”, he said.

Clare Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck, University of London, and the UCL Institute of Education, called the idea “incredibly short-sighted. Are we really going to undervalue one whole body of knowledge at the expense of another?”

She said that the proposal could be seen as part of the government’s broader agenda of discouraging students from taking courses supposedly leading to low-paid jobs. “We know that higher education is more than just jobs. Students learn a whole load of new, invaluable, transferable skills. If we looked at members of the Cabinet − the majority of whom took arts subjects − you would see those transferable skills in action,” she said.

Professor Callender added that the idea also raised serious widening participation questions. “Would this mean that widening participation students, who are the most concerned about the costs of HE, would be attracted to cheaper subjects, while the more advantaged students would be able to continue opting for courses such as PPE [philosophy, politics and economics]? As a policy it does not make sense. Is this yet more evidence that the government is abandoning its commitment to social mobility?” she asked.

Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance group of universities, agreed. “Varying fees for certain courses risks student choice being driven by the sticker price, with students from poorer backgrounds forced to choose the cheaper courses. This could seriously affect individual aspiration and limit some students achieving their potential − surely counter to the government’s levelling-up agenda.”

She added she was also concerned that such a system could see institutions reducing their comprehensive offer in response and creating “cold spots” in provision.

Gordon McKenzie, chief executive of sector representative body GuildHE, said that it would also require an overhaul of the student loans system because, if the government believes arts subjects result in lower earnings but their fees are higher, it will mean students end up paying back less over time. “At the same time, if you drop the fees for science you will need to pump in more grant [money] because they cost more, on average, to deliver,” he said.

“What really bothers me is this backwards-looking notion about qualifications needed for the jobs of the past, [when we have] a future that is ever more unreadable. Why you want to disincentivise creativity and the soft skills [that arts degrees provide] is beyond me,” Mr McKenzie said.

For Greg Walker, chief executive of MillionPlus, a UK-based university association, prospective students should be guided to select courses that they are qualified for.

“Artificially attempting to skew student demand for HE programmes by charging more for some courses than others would be a blunt instrument with a questionable goal in mind,” he said. “Arts, humanities and social sciences have a value not only in the graduate returns they bring in wages, but in the broader contribution graduates can make in society and the workplace.”

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Self interest rides high once again on the horse of hypocrisy. Why not be honest? Most Universities want more arts students because they are less expensive to support and teach and the funds can be used on research or to cross subsidise other courses.
If that was the case, the experts would be arguing in favour of this. As Nick Hillman says, fees don't tend to influence student choice; and a rise in fees for arts and humanities students would, if you were right, make them more appealing. Universities would drop science courses, and stock up on more lucrative arts students. But we don't live in that world; and still, after over a decade of forced marketisation, universities aren't that mercenary.

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