Varying fees across subjects is not the way to fix higher education

The average UK graduate student will leave university buried under the weight of £50,800 in student debt. This tremendously high figure is unfortunately made even more daunting by its relentless tendency to increase each year, as students move closer to facing the cost of their university education.

In March 2018, the value of outstanding tuition fee loans from UK students reached a value of £105 billion – a number that has not ceased to grow in the past ten months. Each year, the British government loans over £16 billion to approximately one million students across the UK. This is an astronomical figure and only 30 per cent of it is expected to be repaid.

With excessive sums of debt piling up for both students and the government, politicians have started reviewing the amount that students in higher education are paying in tuition fees – a figure currently set at £9,250 per year. Suggestions have been made to lower these fees down to £6,500. However, this reduction would result in a rather insignificant effect on the tens of thousands of pounds that students will owe after graduating. Politicians are additionally faced with a warning from universities that a reduction in tuition fees would need to be matched with equal funding from elsewhere – presenting a seemingly irresolvable issue.

Another possible solution (and probably the most contentious) among those suggested, is the introduction of varying tuition fees, wherein certain subjects would incur a greater fee. Science and technology courses would demand figures closer to £13,500 whereas humanities such as English or History would be lowered closer to the £5000 per year mark. The implementation of higher fees for certain subjects would primarily be designed to reflect the expected earnings of graduates of those subjects. For example, there exists an assumption that a student studying medicine will earn a greater salary after university than an art student, and therefore a degree in medicine would be considerably more expensive. More tangibly, these difference in fees would mirror the fact that science and technology subjects are more expensive to teach, requiring more contact hours as well as specialist equipment.

As a humanities student, I see the advantages of the argument being made. The courses that I, and those in my department, study cost the university significantly less to run than STEM subjects. However, beyond this, the implementation of varying tuition fees would have serious implications for students and teachers of both the arts and sciences. In terms of subject participation, this system would create a severe participation gap. Students from poorer backgrounds would be deterred from STEM subjects and by default would be pushed towards the arts and humanities. Furthermore, this undermines the credibility of arts and humanities subjects themselves as lower fees would cause a lower status to be imposed upon them.

The review of tuition fee cuts began back in 2017 but a definitive decision from the government is still far away. This leaves current university students to face the thousands of pounds that they have borrowed. It also poses a question to students on the brink of entering higher education with a decision of their own: is it worth it?


Image: David Vergun via Dobbins Air Reserve Base

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The Student Newspaper 2016