Students happy to fund research, but not other departments

Survey of more than 5,000 students fuels debate about cross-subsidies in English higher education

March 15, 2018
Money reflected in mirror

Students at English universities are happy for their tuition fees to subsidise their lecturers’ research activities but do not want to subsidise other departments, new research reveals.

A survey of 5,685 students conducted for the sector’s new regulator, the Office for Students, found that 70 per cent of respondents were happy for their fees to be used to fund academic research related to their subject.

A slimmer majority of students (58 per cent) agreed that their fees should be spent on new buildings and facilities.

However, only 31 per cent of students agreed that their fees should be spent on “wider research unrelated to your subject”, and 42 per cent disagreed. An even smaller proportion, 27 per cent, backed their fees being used to support teaching on other courses, with nearly half (49 per cent) in opposition to this.

The results come after an analysis conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute last year found a £3.3 billion deficit in UK research funding, meaning that £1 in every £7 spent on research comes from surpluses made from teaching. Meanwhile, there is growing debate about the apparent cross-subsidy of science and engineering courses by programmes in the arts, humanities and social sciences, amid suggestions that the government could consider introducing variable fees as part of its review of higher education funding in England.

The OfS study found that, overall, only 38 per cent of respondents felt that their tuition fees represented good value for money, and 44 per cent felt that they were not. However, a majority of respondents (54 per cent) agreed that their overall investment in higher education was good value for money, with one in five (21 per cent) disagreeing.

However, there was significant variation according to respondents’ subject of study: computer science students were more than twice as likely to think that their fees represented good value for money compared with history and philosophy students (53 per cent versus 26 per cent). Students in physical sciences and law (both 44 per cent) were more likely to think that their fees were good value than students in creative arts and design (30 per cent) or languages (28 per cent).

Some 59 per cent of students at Russell Group universities agreed that their overall investment in higher education was good value for money, compared with 52 per cent at other pre-92 universities, 51 per cent at post-92 universities, and 42 per cent at small, specialist institutions.

Asked which factors would be helpful when assessing whether their university provided value for money, nearly nine in 10 respondents (88 per cent) said that they would like to see a breakdown of how their fee income was spent.

Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said that the research would inform the new regulator’s work.

“Higher education providers should carefully consider the findings from this report and consider how they can improve transparency and clarity about fees and the cost of going to university, and most of all how they can ensure that every student has a fulfilling experience of higher education which can enrich their lives and careers,” she said.

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