In December 2014, a group of 150 arts and social science students at the University of Bristol organised a protest after Epigram, the student newspaper, published figures obtained via a freedom of information request that suggested significant differences in departmental expenditure.
While the university pointed out that the calculations excluded some nuances – such as not taking into account potential differences in the benefit that students get from services funded centrally, rather than by their department – it added to the suspicion among many students that cross-subsidisation from arts towards science subjects – where undergraduate tuition fees are typically the same – takes place on a large scale in UK higher education.
Despite this, the suggestion from politicians has sometimes been that students on arts and humanities courses should actually pay higher fees than those on what are deemed more “useful” courses because of the perceived shortage of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine graduates.
For example, the 2015 UK Independence Party general election manifesto pledged that “UK students taking approved degrees in STEMM...will not have to repay their tuition fees.” And Labour at one stage reportedly considered restricting their £6,000 tuition fee cap policy to STEMM subjects.
With the Conservative government announcing in the Budget this month that the £9,000 tuition fee cap can rise with inflation for universities demonstrating high-quality teaching, could fee differentiation by subject also be back on the table as an option?
Sorana Vieru, the new National Union of Students vice-president for higher education, told Times Higher Education that any differential fees structure “could fuel a consumerist and marketised view of education where certain subjects are deemed more ‘useful’ to society or industry – and more worthy of public funding – whereas others might constitute a ‘personal indulgence’ with a cost the individual needs to bear.
“This is at odds with the idea that education is a public good, a core belief of NUS.”
She said that any move towards lower fees for STEMM would also provoke rancour among students.
“The cross-subsidisation of degrees across subject areas is already an issue students are picking up on. We have seen arts and social science students be vocal about their perceptions that their provision does not match the price tag,” Ms Vieru said.
Oliver Carter-Esdale, a Classics and English student at Bristol, and one of the leaders of protests about the cost of arts and social science degrees, said there would be “an awful lot of students and people in general who would be dismayed at the reduction of fees in any one particular field and not in others, as it would show a preference for certain subjects and/or their apparent skills.
“Tokenising particular fields as more valuable and therefore worth subsidising would help create further divisions in academia and education, and most likely exacerbate those which already exist. It retains the economical language that regards education…and therefore also its students [as a commodity].”
Higher-paid jobs, higher fees?
Recent research by Filipa Sá, senior lecturer in economics at King’s College London, raised the possibility that fees should vary for different degree programmes, but instead advocated lower rates for certain arts and social science courses.
“Perhaps fees should be higher for courses that lead to higher-paid jobs and lower for courses that are socially useful but don’t lead to very highly paid jobs,” she told THE.
However, almost all talk from politicians appears to suggest that if there is to be a reduction in fees for specific courses, it would be for STEMM students, and all major parties appear to buy into the narrative of a skills shortage.
Last year, Nicky Morgan, the Conservative education secretary, said that the subjects “that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEMM subjects”. The combination of her comments, the Liberal Democrats’ manifesto plans to reinstate post-study work visas for STEM graduates, and Labour and Ukip’s pre-election thinking seems to indicate that the major parties would appear more likely to be in favour of raising fees for arts and social sciences to subsidise reduced STEMM fees than vice versa.
The Social Market Foundation has claimed that there is a 50 per cent annual shortfall in the number of STEMM graduates, and the CBI and the president of Boeing, among others, have been among those arguing this year that there is a need for more students to take science-based courses.
However, the notion that the UK needs more STEMM graduates is far from universally accepted.
“[G]enerally speaking, there is no particular reason to think that the country is experiencing a [STEMM] skills shortage,” Robert Dingwall, a professor in the School of Social Sciences at Nottingham Trent University, told THE.
The increase in the number of those graduating from STEMM courses is greater than the rise in all graduates between 1994-95 and 2011-12: 81 per cent compared with 64 per cent.
Despite this, some students are still comfortable with seeing fee income from arts and social science courses going to support subjects that are more expensive to teach, although that does not necessarily mean they would support tipping this balance further in favour of STEMM.
James Tunningley, a postgraduate student in Chinese studies at the University of Oxford, said that he “wholeheartedly” believed that tuition fees should be the same for all subjects.
“In regard to STEMM subjects, which are largely considered disproportionately more expensive to fund, I am very much happy for some of my tuition to be allocated for the resources, equipment or teaching required by said subjects. University is about a collective experience and should be a level playing field.”
Meanwhile, Pascal Cissé, a Spanish and Russian student at the University of Bath, pointed out that if the government wanted to make STEMM courses free or have lower fees, it was “difficult to see where else the money could come from” other than by increasing fees on other courses – although he said that any arts student would strongly oppose such an idea.
It is still unclear whether fees would begin to vary on different courses, and which students would face a rise or a fall: currently the general direction of travel is for fees to vary by institution not subject.
But considering that the thesis of a STEMM shortage is often disputed and that a number of leading universities’ arts and social science students have expressed dissatisfaction with cross-subsidisation per se, it appears unlikely that a proposed change where arts and social science students are charged more than their STEMM counterparts would escape loud criticism.