Student verdicts on courses a reminder of Augar debate complexities

Student satisfaction appears to be higher with some humanities courses like history, and lower with certain STEM subjects 

July 17, 2019
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Fears about the impact that the Augar review of post-18 education in England could have on funding some subjects – particularly the arts, humanities and social sciences – have been voiced by some pretty influential people over the past few weeks.

Chief among the concerns seems to be that decisions about which courses get replacement funding for any cut in fees to £7,500 could be heavily reliant on controversial data on graduate earnings. The review recommends that the government should shift the replacement funding “to reflect more accurately the subject’s reasonable costs and its social and economic value to students and taxpayers”.

Although the Augar report suggests that there should be careful consideration about which subjects are “socially desirable” even where graduate earnings are not high, the worry is that funding decisions could be based purely on the monetary returns from studying certain subjects – or even on the whims and preferences of politicians.

Of course, the likelihood of Augar even being implemented hangs in the balance, but it has brought certain issues to the fore around drawing broad distinctions between arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) on one side and science, technology, engineering and maths on the other.

The latest results of the National Student Survey, published this month, could now add another aspect to this discussion: how satisfaction with courses varies between STEM and AHSS subjects.

Could the Augar recommendations, if implemented, incentivise universities towards providing some courses that receive relatively low satisfaction scores from the students who take them?

Average responses by full-time students to the main NSS question 27 – whether students are satisfied with the quality of their course – show interesting differences by subject, and they certainly do not appear to follow STEM/AHSS lines.

For instance, although there are STEM and AHSS subject areas that gain similar scores to the overall average for NSS course satisfaction – such as social sciences, medicine and law – others are quite different.

History, philosophy and theology – a subject group that does not tend to produce the highest-earning graduates, according to the Department for Education's longitudinal education outcomes data – seem to get the highest course average in the NSS, with a satisfaction score of 89 per cent.

Meanwhile, the lowest average ratings for question 27 are for computing (with 78 per cent), and engineering and technology (at 79 per cent) two subjects often thought of as having the best employment and earnings prospects.

It is true that some STEM subjects do very well in the NSS while some AHSS fields do not: communications and media courses get an average of 79 per cent and creative arts and design fare little better with 80 per cent. At the other end of the scale, students seem relatively satisfied with physical sciences and maths, whose courses gain an average satisfaction rating of 88 and 87 per cent respectively.

Just as with nuances in the LEO data, which reveal that even within seemingly high-earning STEM subjects there are still courses that lead to lower returns, it is perhaps another reminder that splitting debates along AHSS and STEM lines is not always simple.

A recent British Academy-commissioned report on the longer-term employment prospects of AHSS graduates may also add fuel to the argument that there are hidden subtleties to the AHSS/STEM divide.

Although the London Economics study – which used the UK Labour Force Survey to look at employment trends over the past 20 years – found that generally the average hourly pay of AHSS graduates was “consistently below that of STEM graduates”, social science graduates earn much more than those who took other AHSS degrees.

Men "in possession of undergraduate degrees in social sciences register a 22 per cent per hour wage premium compared to all other AHSS degree holders, while the corresponding estimate for females stands at approximately 12 per cent”, the report states.

It also notes that overall “AHSS graduates are more likely to change sector and role voluntarily, and without wage penalty, suggesting greater flexibility and choice than STEM graduates experience”. Men who did undergraduate AHSS degrees also experience a higher wage premium from changing jobs than for STEM graduates.

The kind of evidence brought to light in the report could prove to be a vital counterweight to LEO data in any future wrangling about top-up funding if fees are cut to £7,500 in the wake of Augar.

“AHSS graduates are just as likely to have a job as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates, enjoy similar job security and have more varied careers,” said Roger Kain, British Academy vice-president for research and higher education policy.

“Meanwhile, some of the fastest growing sectors in the economy are in the services sector, fuelled in large part by AHSS graduates. If Augar leads to a tuition fee cut and funding top-ups for different subjects, the government must consider the enormous value of our subjects.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said the various complexities and variations around the outcomes and value placed on different courses meant the “only sensible justification for funding courses differently at the front end is if they cost more to teach”.

“No one disagrees that it costs more to teach a medic than a lawyer,” he added. “Where a course has really poor outcomes against reasonable expectations, then the best way to tackle the problem is through better regulation, more transparent information and a process of self-improvement. If a course remains very poor, that’s not an argument for underfunding it, it’s an argument for posing questions about its future viability.”

Professor Kain said the British Academy acknowledged that there were clear variations in the teaching costs of different subjects, but emphasised that even here there was “not a straightforward distinction between AHSS and STEM subjects”.

“Languages, archaeology, and the performing and creative arts require specialist facilities in the same way as laboratory-based subjects. Moreover, in the growing areas of interdisciplinary provision, AHSS and STEM staff come together to jointly provide courses, and this makes attempts to apportion cost of delivery to subjects highly problematic.

“Ultimately, we need to value the contribution of all disciplines now and in the future, and we hope that the Augar review leads the next government to a suitable and nuanced higher education policy that reflects this.”


Print headline: Arts rival STEM for student approval

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Reader's comments (2)

The NSS is a flawed metric, relying on subjective expressions of 'satisfaction' that do not relate to the quality of the education being delivered. Unless it is cross-referenced with attainment data, it's merely a popularity contest... one which those courses that really stretch and challenge students, that require them to work hard to achieve are less likely to win.
Fears are grossly exaggerated. As Nick Hilman says “only sensible justification for funding courses differently at the front end is if they cost more to teach”. Augar is clear about this. Top ups will be used to help with high cost to deliver courses. Anyway, the satisfaction levels range from 78 to 89%, all very good. Correlation with later incomes by subject studied is a minefield, particularly when you take into account higher wages with London employers, job changes, sector changes as people move up the pay ladder and around the globe. In the end it is people who are being paid, not academic subjects studied. We need more STEM practitioners but we need talented people even more to ensure a thriving economy and society.


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