Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Would Students Swallow Fees Varying by Subject?

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Would Students Swallow Fees Varying by Subject?

Article excerpt

Epigram editor Zaki Dogliani on the arguments for tuition reform and who could face a hike in costs

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. …

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