Students are opposed to the introduction of variable tuition fees in English higher education, according to polling that emerges amid growing criticism of the government’s hopes of delivering greater price competition in the sector.
Launching a review of post-18 education funding on 19 February, prime minister Theresa May expressed concern that “all but a handful” of English universities charged the maximum fee of £9,250 for their courses and that the level of fees charged does “not relate to the cost or quality of the course”.
This came after Damian Hinds, the education secretary, said that he would “like to see options available which have different costs”, triggering suggestions that degrees offering lower graduate earnings – typically those in the arts and social sciences – could have their fees cut.
But a poll of more than 1,000 students conducted for the Higher Education Policy Institute, published on 22 February, reveals widespread scepticism among students about the idea. Of those surveyed, nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) felt that all full-time undergraduate courses should cost the same, while only one in three (33 per cent) disagreed.
Nick Hillman, the director of Hepi, told Times Higher Education: “[Students] are clearly deeply sceptical of differential fees. They don’t like them in principle.”
When asked what their preference would be if variable fees were to be introduced, 57 per cent of respondents said that courses that are more expensive to deliver should cost more. Only 17 per cent of students said that courses that led to higher earnings should cost more.
Students said that they were more likely to accept higher fees in disciplines such as medicine, law and engineering, while they were more likely to agree that lower fees could be justified in subject areas such as history and English, or the creative arts.
“The range of responses is interesting,” Mr Hillman added. “If we are to have a debate about it, we need to listen to students because they are willing to give more complex answers than saying they just don’t like [variable tuition fees].”
The polling is part of a Hepi report authored by Mr Hillman that warns that it is difficult to isolate differences in earnings arising from higher education choices from other factors such as graduates’ social background and local labour market conditions.
Meanwhile, Justine Greening, the former education secretary, has warned that lowering fees for some courses could leave disadvantaged students feeling compelled to choose these degrees, thus entrenching inequality.
Jonathan Wastling, pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Keele University, told THE that it would be “very dangerous” if fee changes deterred students from studying science in favour of cheaper subjects.
“If students feel that they can’t afford to do a science or STEM-based degree then that would mitigate students coming into the sciences and we need more students, particularly in engineering, mathematics and life sciences,” Professor Wastling said.
He added that cuts to arts and social science tuition would likely reduce the overall amount of funding coming into universities, which would have “quite serious consequences” for science subjects that institutions run on “marginal figures”.
Andrew McRae, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Exeter, said that cutting fees for arts and social sciences courses would lead to cuts in services for all students, such as libraries.
“Students across the board would be getting a lesser product and experience than they are now,” he said.
“So much of the discourse of this reform seems to be based around false assumptions about the quality and value of arts and humanities degrees,” Professor McRae added. “There are certain myths about humanities degrees being worthless and taking students nowhere in their careers, and none of the evidence really stacks up on that.”
In the Hepi poll, students were asked how big a price differential in tuition fees they might be prepared to accept. Nearly half (46 per cent) said that fees for the most expensive courses should never be more than one and a half times the cost of the cheapest courses; 30 per cent refused to countenance any differential.
Most students (59 per cent) did not feel that lower fees for poorer students could be justified, although a substantial minority (38 per cent) did.