Tuition Fee Caps

I know it’s a Bank Holiday, but I’ve been thinking…

About a week ago I posted an item arguing that the current system of higher education funding is detrimental to the health of STEM disciplines (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The main reason for this is that present funding arrangements fail to address the real difference in cost of degree courses in various disciplines: the income to a University for a student doing Physics is about £10.5K whereas for a student doing, say, English it is £9K. I would  estimate the extra cost for the former corresponds to at least a factor two and probably more. That’s partly because Physics requires laboratory space and equipment (and related technical support) that English does not, but also because Physics students receive many more contact hours with academic staff.  The issue is just as much about arts students being ripped off (as they undoubtedly are being) as it is a strategic failure to protect the sciences.

The problem is that the Council responsible for distributing funding (HEFCE) is strapped for cash, so is unable to fund STEM disciplines at the higher level of resource that it used to.  Since the government has decided, in its  (finite) wisdom, to transfer most of the cost of higher education to the students, HEFCE can now exert very little influence on how universities plan their portfolio of courses. Since it is a lot cheaper and easier to expand capacity in Arts & Social Sciences faculties than in the more expensive STEM disciplines, this is an incentive for Universities to turn away from the Sciences. Given our economic predicament this policy is simply perverse. We need more scientists and engineers, not fewer.

This morning I read an article in the Times Higher about the present £9K tuition fee cap. Not surprisingly the Russell Group of self-styled “elite” Universities wants it lifted, presumably so its Vice-Chancellors can receive even bigger pay rises. But that’s not the point. The article made me think of a cunning (or perhaps daft) plan, which I’m floating here with the prediction that people will shoot it down through the comments box.

Now before I go on, I just want to make it clear that I’m not – and never have been – in favour of the present funding system. I don’t object to the principle that students who can afford to should contribute to the cost of higher education, but the arrangements we’re stuck with are indefensible and I don’t think they will last long into the next Parliament. It’s telling that, only a decade after introducing tuition fees, Germany is now scrapping them. I’d prefer a hybdrid system in which the taxpayer funds scholarships for STEM disciplines and other strategically important areas, while leaving universities to charge fees for other disciplines.

However, since we’ve been lumbered with a silly system, it’s worth exploring what might be achieved by working within it. There doesn’t seem to be much creative thinking going on in the coalition, and the Labour Party just says it would reduce the fee cap to £6K which would squeeze all academic disciplines equally, without doing anything about the anomalies mentioned above.

My  idea is quite simple. I propose that universities be entitled to lift their fee levels for STEM subjects by an amount X, provide that they reduce the fees for Arts and Social Sciences students by the same amount. The current fee level is £9K for all disciplines, so an example might be for STEM subjects to charge £12K while A&SS (if you pardon the abbreviation) get £6K. That would achieve the factor of two differential I mentioned above.

The advantages of this proposal are that it gives an incentive for universities to promote STEM disciplines and more properly reflects the difference in cost of the different subjects, without increasing the cost to the Treasury. In fact only about 25% of students study in STEM disciplines, at least for the moment, so the cost of fee loans will actually go down

The biggest potential flaw is  that increasing the cost to STEM students would put them off. There’s simply no data on which to base an argument as to whether this would be the case or not. I suspect however that a difference in price would be perceived by many as a difference in value.

Anyway, it’s just an idea. That’s what blogs are for. Thinking out loud as it were. Feel free to object..

13 Responses to “Tuition Fee Caps”

  1. > About a week ago I posted an item arguing


  2. telescoper Says:

    Apologies. I was experiencing a spot of premature publication…hitting the “publish” key instead of the “save draft” one!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The problem is in the tension between two facts: (1) micromanagement is a bad thing as it involves excessive control; (2) some Arts subjects are worthwhile – meaning that they both impart facts about a subject and give a serious intellectual workout – whereas others are just trash, and should therefore be binned (or be used as cash cows).

  4. So if a University can put STEM fees up as long as it drops the fees for its non-STEM subjects, where does that leave places that don’t do any non-STEM subjects (like Imperial)? Can we raise our STEM fees as high as we want, or get locked in, since there are non non-STEM fees to drop? Or do we have to have one non-STEM student who gets in for nothing so we can play the system 🙂

    More seriously, I do worry about the cost differential. If it’s going to cost a STEM student twice as much money to do their subject, why should they bother? That’s an extract 24k (assuming a 6k differential and a 4 year degree course)? We do at least have a level playing field at the moment which, from what I see, is leading to a steady rise in applications for STEM subjects, or at least physics.

    Maybe the differential should be the other way round, with (arguably more economically useful) STEM subjects requiring the student to pay less (with the difference made up by HMG), while less economically useful subjects charging more. But that would lead to (actually quite valid) disputes about which subjects are more or less useful. Economics vs. astronomy, archaeology vs. forensic science… Which is more useful?

    • telescoper Says:

      I did think about Imperial, but checked on the web pages and found that it does teach things like psychology and management…which aren’t STEM subjects. A hypothetical university that only did science subjects would be locked in a 9K in my scheme, so there would be an incentive to introduce arts subjects then but this would be rare.

      I think students might well be persuaded to pay more for the same reason that they are prepared to take courses that are more difficult. i.e. that they’re worth it.

  5. Checking on the UG prospectus webpages here:

    you can find a lot of courses that are ‘X with Management’ (eg. Biotechnology with Management) but no separate UG course in Management. Similarly, there is no UG course in Psychology being offered, though it would no doubt feature as part of any UG course in Medicine.

    You may be thinking of taught postgraduate courses, which can be found here:

    There are certainly courses in management there (though I can’t find a psychology one) but these are outside the purview of your proposed funding scheme.

    Which would leave Imperial, and anywhere else like it, stuck on charging lower fees per student for STEM subjects since it would have no non-STEM subjects to cut. That doesn’t make sense to me. If STEM subjects are more expensive, then why stop somewhere charging more?

    Or we’d be thrown back on the idea of having a single non-STEM student in the entire institution who would be charged nothing, so the STEM fees could all be doubled. Such a scheme might actually appeal to some of the higher management types at Imperial.

    • telescoper Says:

      I wonder if those “X with management” courses currently attract the full Band B HEFCE funding? They shouldn’t if they contain a sizeable Band C/D component…

      But assuming that Imperial doesn’t do anything outside STEM/Medicine then it would be frozen in at £9K. But (a) that serves it right for not being a proper University and (b) it’s rolling in wealth anyway so my sympathy is very limited. Perhaps it might rethink its decision to withdraw from the University of London…


      • It would provide them with a reason to restart the history of science courses they used to do, though I’m not sure any of them were full UG degrees.

        But should have a handful of non-STEM students be the key to unlocking variable fees? That would seem to be gaming the system just a little too much.

        And as for wealthy institutions, Imperial is peanuts compared to many Oxbridge or many Oxbridge Colleges. Can you still walk from Oxford to Cambridge just on land owned by St John’s (Oxford or Cambridge)?

      • Anton Garrett Says:


        You never could. The story that I believe is that you could walk it apart from a 2-mile gap on land belonging to Trinity College, Cambridge. In which case you probably still can, as there has been no recent reason for a big sell-off.

      • telescoper Says:

        I think they should re-open the Cambridge-Oxford railway line so that one can take a ride on a radio telescope between the two places. I think one would have to be careful about low bridges though.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Shurely depends on the wavelength?

  6. Alex Hall Says:

    As a STEM student, I find the idea of £12K tuition fees a bit alarming! To place the psychological, emotional, and economic burden of £36,000 of debt onto a young person for a University education, something which should be a basic right regardless of wealth, surely cannot be defended.

    I acknowledge that you’ve stressed you’d be in favour of a different system entirely. Whilst I welcome creative ideas as to how to keep our Universities well funded and at a high standard, with an appropriate level of funding for STEM and non-STEM subjects, I believe that to confine oneself to thinking within the bounds of the current system is somewhat misguided and distracts from the broader issue.

    Student fees are too high as it is. Keeping them low, whilst keeping courses well-funded should be the question posed. Juggling the fee levels around at no extra cost to the Treasury lets the government off the hook and implicitly accepts what should be unacceptable: the current fee levels.

    • telescoper Says:

      I need to put my cards on the table, and say that I went to University in the 80s, so paid no fees and got a full maintenance grant. Coming from a working class family, I think it’s the loss of the grant that would have deterred me more than the fees (that don’t have to be paid back until a certain level of earnings is reached) so I think grants should be re-introduced as a first priority. But if we have fees we have to ask what is the right level, and why? What is the balance between price for the individual and value to society?

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