How Labour’s Tuition Fee Proposals Should Be Implemented

The big news today is Ed Milliband’s announcement that, if elected, the Labour Party would cut the maximum tuition fee payable by students in English universities from £9K to £6K. That will of course be broadly welcomed by prospective students (and indeed current ones, whose fees will be reduced from 2016 onwards). There is however considerable nervousness around the university sector about whether and how the cut of 33% in fee income will be made good. The proposal seems to be that the shortfall of around £3bn will be made up by grants from government to universities, funded by a reduction in tax relief on pension contributions made by high earners.  I have yet to see any concrete proposals on how these grants would be allocated.

I would like here to make a proposal on how this allocation should be done, in such a way that it corrects a serious anomaly in how the current funding arrangements from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) affect Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. For the record, I’ll declare my interest in this: I work in a STEM area and am therefore biased.

I’ll explain my reasoning by going back a few years. Before the introduction  of the £9K tuition fees in 2012  (i.e. in the `old regime’), a University would receive income from tuition fees of up to £3375 per student and from a `unit of resource’ or `teaching grant’ that depends on the subject. As shown in the upper part of Table C below which is taken from a HEFCE document:

Budgets

In the old regime, the  maximum income per student in Physics was thus £8,269 whereas for a typical Arts/Humanities student the maximum was £5,700. That means there was a 45% difference in funding between these two types of subject. The reason for this difference is that subjects such as physics are much more expensive to teach. Not only do disciplines like physics require expensive laboratory facilities (and associated support staff), they also involve many more contact hours between students and academic staff than in, e.g. an Arts subject.  However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two difference in teaching grant between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking recently to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, the latter  usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. That meagre level of contact is by no means unusual, and some universities offer even less tuition than that. A recent report states that the real cost of teaching for Law and Sociology is less than £6000 per student, consistent with the level of funding under the “old” fee regime; teaching in STEM disciplines on the other hand actually costs over £11k. What this means, in effect, is that Arts and Humanities students are cross-subsidising STEM students. That’s neither fair nor transparent.

In my School, the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise classes, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics.

Now look at what happens in the `new regime’, as displayed in the lower table in the figure. In the current system, students still pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects (£9K in most HEIs) but the teaching grant is now £1483 for Physics and nothing at all for Bands C and D. The difference in income is thus just £1,483, a percentage difference of just 16.4%. Worse than this, there’s no requirement that this extra resource be spent on the disciplines with which it is associated. In most universities, though gladly not mine, all the tuition income goes into central coffers and is dispersed to Schools and Departments according to the whims of the University Management.

Of course the higher  fee levels have led to an increase in income to Universities across all disciplines, which is welcome because it should allow institutions to improve the quality of their teaching bu purchasing better equipment, etc. But the current arrangements as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as Physics, relative to Arts & Humanities subjects such as English or History. It also rips off  staff and students in those disciplines, the students because they are given very little teaching in return for their fee, and the staff because we have to work far harder than our colleagues in other disciplines, who  fob off  most of what little teaching their supposed to do onto PhD students badged as Teaching Assistants. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such immense dedication to teaching as well as research that they’re prepared to carry on working in a University environment that is so clearly biased against STEM disciplines.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance. Here at Sussex, only about a quarter of students take courses in STEM subjects; nationally the figure is even lower, around 20%.

Now there’s a chance to reverse this bias and provide an incentive for universities to support STEM subjects. My proposal is simple: the government grants proposed to offset the loss of tuition fee income should be focussed on STEM disciplines. Income to universities from students in, especially laboratory-based subjects, could then be raised to about £12K, adequate to cover the real cost of teaching, whereas that in the less onerous Arts and Humanities could be fixed at about about £6K, again sufficient to cover the actual cost of teaching but funded by fees only.

I want to make it very clear that I am not saying that non-STEM subjects are of lower value, just that they cost less to teach.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a totally unscientific poll to see what readers of this blog make of the Labour proposals:

2 Responses to “How Labour’s Tuition Fee Proposals Should Be Implemented”

  1. …frankly my likelihood of voting Labour went out with David – but in the North that’s unlikely to change anything significantly (they’re going to lose anyway when the SNP whip them north of the border).

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