Debate: Should there be different prices for STEM and Humanities degrees?

FOR: Students should get their money’s worth. 

By Hannah Wallis 

Students need assurances of value for money, which means paying for what you get. That also means not paying for your own degree whilst part-funding a peer’s STEM subject course too so they can dissect, model and concoct at a subsidised price.

A variable, cost-dependent course price is already implemented in the post-graduate system, where course fees can vary, even within a singular department. This hasn’t caused a great disparity in the numbers opting to study more costly STEM subjects versus humanities and arts subjects, and so this comparable model should appease those who fear disproportion on an institutional and national level.

The real worry however, is that students who fail to see value for money reflected in the English system will soon turn to European universities instead where fees are traditionally lower, and more closely reflect the curriculum of each subject. This could leave UK institutions struggling to fill places in these departments, and the consequential squeeze could push up degree prices, making university less accessible for all. Acting sooner is hence in the best interests of all students.

Humanities and arts students also have to fork out huge amounts of money on supplementary materials- books, art equipment, theatre tickets and more, in addition to the overhead course cost. Whilst STEM subjects incur some of this cost too through one-off textbook buys, they have their lab materials provided, and do not have to budget for the all-year round costs to keep up with the curriculum.  Institutions need to be willing to lower the fees for humanities courses, so that these students are at least not worse-off due to additional expenses. At a compromise, establishing a voucher scheme of free books and resources that derives from tuition fees would go some way to achieving financial equality.

The lower-earning potential of humanities degrees needs to be considered too: whilst many financial and consultancy roles say that they recruit from all backgrounds, the harsh reality is that getting into these well-paid sectors is almost impossible when competing against STEM subjects. With honed numerical skills thanks to habitual use, they unsurprisingly come out on-top in arithmetical competency tests, pushing out candidates from non-STEM subjects, whose other, equally valuable skills never get to be shown at interview.

As a result of this privileged access to higher paid jobs, STEM subject students are more likely to repay not only their tuition fee loans, but also the debt of maintenance cost, allowing them to move into other advantageous investments such as property more quickly. The financial investment for learning the skills needed for these jobs should reflect the return on investment that they provide.

One feasible solution might be to vary the threshold of loan repayment, depending on subject studied. This way, the government would at least get some money back from the billions of pounds it lends out to students, creating a more sustainable system that is less prone to more radical measures that damage affordability and accessibility for all.

Perhaps the real problem stems from the disparity in salaries between STEM careers and non-STEM, whereby our society puts a different value on different skills. That’s not at all to say that salaries should be entirely standardised, but it’s time that society saw the worth of all industries to our economy and culture.

The language used is partly fuelling the problem; worth, cost, price and value are used almost synonymously. We need to disassociate these elements in order to restore fairness to our higher education system.   


AGAINST: Differing fees will create more problems than it will solve 

By Elizabeth Greenberg 

Theresa May’s plan to vary tuition fees based on subject, cost of the course, and the economic outlook of the subject is not the plan universities or students need. The plan would be unworkable and not exactly solve any of the major issues facing students, especially those from lower income backgrounds who suffer the largest student loans. The plan to either make humanities tuition smaller or make STEM tuition larger would simply push students toward humanities as a way to save money and still get a degree, even one that they might not be passionate about.

May’s reasoning for this issue is mainly sound: STEM degrees, on the whole, cost more, have more contact hours, and usually secure higher income jobs after graduation. However, many STEM degrees require further schooling or longer degrees. Yes, those studying medicine are ensured a well paying job, but only after a gruelling 6 years of school and then another two years as an overworked junior doctor. They will still incur a large amount of debt from their studies, and for people from lower income households, that debt will be the greatest as they may need the largest loans.

Most humanities subjects have fewer contact hours than STEM degrees, as humanities students rarely need to step into a laboratory. However, humanities should be given more contact hours and a better experience at university. They should get their money’s worth, and it is the university’s responsibility to make humanities degrees worth the same as STEM degrees. This could include having more contact hours, faster and better feedback for course work and exams, and better options for employment presented by the university.

The entire idea seems like a pitiful ploy by May to rally support from university students. Sure, for humanities students, having to pay less for a degree might sound nice at first look, but the idea could cause major changes in UK universities. A shift of subject specialising might occur, with universities cutting out humanities subjects in favour of more expensive STEM subjects, or vice versa.

Especially during the strikes, it is important to look at how this will affect humanities teachers. Professors would likely face a pay cut due to less tuition, as would tutorial leaders. An overall cutback in staff numbers may also occur as a result of cheaper tuition for humanities. When Vice Chancellors are making staggering amounts of money (and honestly, what is it that they actually do?), it is doubtful this cut in humanities tuition would come out of their paychecks. As they are now, professors will suffer the consequences.

International students already face the difference in tuition for lab-based subjects and classroom-based subjects. As an international student, let me tell you, the amount I have to pay did make a difference in what degree I chose. The same might be true for other students faced with the same decision. Going to university is already expensive, you might as well do something you like and get your money’s worth.

Image: LSE Library via Flickr

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