Varying fees for different subjects is not the solution

By Isobel Clarke

Durham is on strike! The protesters are calling for staff and student solidarity. Regardless of which side of the debate you stand on, is there a legitimate argument in favour of refunds for contact hours lost over the strike period? The students at Brighton University, amongst others, seem to think so, as they been furiously signing a petition to that effect.

But are they right to demand compensation? After all, we all know that tuition fees are certainly not dependent on the number of contact hours you receive, which can be a real frustration for Arts and Humanities students (even though I’m yet to hear one moan about a lie-in).

So how are fees calculated? Can universities really justify the hefty £9,250 a year they charge? Is that amount of student debt even sustainable for whoever accrues it? Is it fair that Humanities students appear to be subsidising Science students? The review that Theresa May commissioned last month into the costs of higher education suggests that the Government, at present, has few answers.

Those who think critically about the issue can see the flaws in what politicians say about this subject, regardless of their party affiliation. Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary, has called for variation in fees. In simple terms, this would mean that students who receive more contact hours would pay more for their course.

I’ve yet to hear an Arts and Humanities student complain about a lie-in

As a Physics student, I have my personal grievances with such a policy; but I shall remain objective for a moment. Politicians often neglect to consider the unintended consequences of their policies and it would seem our Education Secretary is no exception. If Science students are charged more to study their courses, this will create a deterrent to taking STEM subjects, which seems ludicrous given Britain’s current skills shortage in these fields.

In contrast, PGCE students can be granted bursaries – extra funding – for teacher training in a science subject. With a shortage of Science teachers, the bursary acts as an incentive. Surely Hinds can see the contradiction between these two policies?

The obverse of varying fees by subject would be scaled fees depending on which university you attend. For Durham students, this would be bad news. Durham is objectively one of the country’s leading universities in most rankings, so its students would have to pay a premium for that advantage. The ‘logic’ behind this idea is skewed. Graduates from the leading universities are, on average, the highest long-term earners. Hinds seems to suggest that they can, therefore, ‘afford’ to be in more debt.

Durham students would have to pay a premium to study at a leading university

As a Durham Physicist, this is not looking good for me! Is it fair that a student who is exceptionally bright, but financially constrained, might feel pressured to choose a university with an entry standard below their A-level achievements? Surely it is detrimental to our country to have lost that student from one of our top institutions?

So far the debate has focused upon redistributing the fees that we currently pay to make the system ‘fairer’. But perhaps the problem simply lies within the fees themselves? Labour certainly seems to think so. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has claimed that “Labour will abolish tuition fees, bring back maintenance grants and provide free, lifelong education in further education colleges.”

Repayment of fees as a percentage of future income seems fair

This is a crowd-pleasing position, certainly, but it has its drawbacks. Theresa May makes a fair point when she says that making university free would force higher education to compete for government funding with hospitals, schools and other essential public services. May’s point is indicative of the fact that politicians have a sharp eye for the flaws in others’ policies, but that their vision is somewhat blurred when it comes to reviewing their own.

So is May’s one year review the key to solving the dilemma? It seems unlikely. In fact, I’m not convinced the perfect solution exists. Repayment of fees as a percentage of future income seems fair. Far more controversial is the seemingly random figure of £9,250 a year, regardless of the actual cost of the respective course. The differences in course contact hours and course quality would become less controversial if students no longer felt genuinely outraged at the extortionate level of fees.

The theory behind introducing a maximum level of £9,000 per year was that competition between universities would prevail. Instead, we have an oligopolistic situation, where despite there being multiple providers, there is an ubiquitous price for the service. That price suits all of the providers, but none of the consumers.

Photograph: Michael Fleshman via Flikr

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