Will higher education be STEMied?

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23 Feb 18

Reducing fees for arts and humanities degrees lower than those for science, technology, engineering and maths will create unfair disparities between what graduates will have to pay, suggests Respublica's Joe Cowen.

On Monday Theresa May announced a year-long review into higher education funding.

One of the options announced was reducing fees for non-Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) courses.

Will this be the answer or just stymie the progress that has been made?

Cynics might ask why a review is needed, since the government continues to claim the current system has been successful at encouraging record numbers of students (especially from disadvantaged backgrounds) to attend university.

But in an attempt to gain youth support the PM has stated her commitment to fixing “one of the most expensive systems of university tuition in the world”.

In response, the Department of Education’s go-to policy this week appears to be the idea of making fees for arts and social science degrees lower than those for STEM subjects, but this is fraught with difficulties.

To begin, reducing fees in general benefits only the wealthiest graduates.

Cutting fees for low earners does nothing for them in real terms because their loans would have been written off before they paid back the full amount anyway and their monthly repayments would remain the same.

Only the highest earners would benefit, as they would repay less in loan repayments overall than they do now.

Adding this dimension to the distinction between social science and STEM degrees would therefore reduce the amount that a lawyer or banker would have to pay back compared to a maths teacher.

Is that fair?

There is also the danger that by making STEM degrees more expensive, students (especially from poorer backgrounds) would be disincentivised from taking the very subjects that the government is trying to encourage most.

This could also create a lack of diversity in STEM courses and have negative knock-on effects for related industries.

An alternative is that cheaper courses become unpopular because costing less gives the impression they are second-class degrees.

This is one of the reasons why most courses today charge the upper limit of £9k. This would be terrible for the UK’s highly successful creative sector, which needs a talent pool to thrive.

Given the country’s anxieties about the future of Artificial Intelligence and its impact upon jobs, discouraging individuals from taking arts courses could be a massive shot-in-the-foot.

As automation threatens, the jobs that are most likely to survive are those that humans can do better than machines i.e. jobs that need creative thinking.

Should the future of jobs turn out to be more secure than predicted, there is still consensus among the tech sector that it needs graduates with a mix of both STEM and creative skills to remain innovative.

As Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson stated during the Education Select Committee hearing on Wednesday, Google are set to recruit 6k employees in the UK this year and 4-5k of them will be graduates with humanities degrees.

Cheaper to run arts courses also make a greater contribution to the coffers of universities for research and general infrastructure spending, essentials for maintaining the quality of education at universities. They also help to top-up many STEM subjects that cost more to deliver than £9k a year.

Reducing the cost of arts subjects could therefore be self-defeating, as universities would have less money to teach students and the extra-cost STEM courses may become too expensive to run and would be the first to go.

Perhaps a fairer system would see more government funding for STEM subjects as they cost more, whilst keeping the price the same for students.

Finally, whilst it does not seem unreasonable to charge graduates less for studying arts degrees that will mean they earn less, this is in essence exactly what the loan scheme already does without the above problems. The current system allows graduates to pay back less if they earn less.

The introduction of differential priced degrees is therefore clearly not a radical solution or the right answer.

If it is simply an attempt to gain student support, a report published today by the Higher Education Policy Institute may come as a blow.

They find that over 60% of students do not support the idea of varying price tags for different courses.

Fortunately the review will consider a number of alternatives, like the sensible recommendations made by The Treasury Select Committee this week.

They propose reintroducing maintenance grants to help the least well-off, simplifying the system so student finance is better communicated and abandoning RPI in favour of CPI to calculate the interest on loans.  

Although the PM appears to be using the one-year review to kick the issue of student finance down the road, at least the government acknowledges the problems.

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