Fiddling With Fees Will Fix Nothing | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Fiddling With Fees Will Fix Nothing

Comment Writer Emelia Lavender analyses recent discussion regarding tuition fees, arguing that current government suggestions will not fix anything

The higher education funding review launched by Theresa May and education secretary Damian Hinds this week promises to re-evaluate the current tuition fee system. However, I believe that the scope of this review will not be enough to accommodate the necessary changes.

In comments made on the Andrew Marr show, Hinds suggested that universities should charge different fees from one course to another, rather than sticking to the £9,250 maximum all round. When quizzed as to how this variation should be calculated and justified, Hinds offered three factors: the cost to the university to deliver the course, the value to the student and their future earnings, and the value to the economy and to society as a whole.

Regardless of how much you think students or graduates should or shouldn’t contribute to university funding and by what means, adjusting the current system to vary fees according to these criteria will not achieve what is promised in terms of fairness and equality.

Adjusting the current system to vary fees according to these criteria will not achieve what is promised in terms of fairness and equality

If fees were to be varied according to the cost of course delivery and according to the value to the student and their earning potential, the general move would be towards higher fees for STEM subjects with high-tech equipment and high contact hours, and lower fees for arts and humanities courses, which tend to have fewer contact hours and less specialist equipment.

This might at first seem like a logical approach that might appeal to students who worry that the fees paid by arts students are subsidising lab-based science degrees. However, varying course fees in this way would incentivise students from disadvantaged backgrounds to restrict their options to more affordable humanities courses, leaving wealthier students free to pick their course based on interest or career potential. When you combine this with the different earning potentials of arts vs science degrees, it is clear that this would only serve to entrench socioeconomic inequalities and reduce social mobility by restricting the training needed for high-earning jobs to those that are already well-off.

To try to avoid this replication and reinforcement of inequality, we might turn to Hinds’ third factor. Hinds told Marr that fees might be varied according to the value of different degrees to the country’s society and economy. By this we can understand that fees for courses such as medicine, teaching, or technical subjects might be lowered to incentivise students to pick these careers, informed by the government’s value judgements about what sort of person or profession is most beneficial to society as a whole, or about what careers will contribute more to a technology-driven economic ambition. With this I take issue on two counts: firstly, I think the promotion of arts and humanities subjects as non-beneficial to society is short-sightedand overlooks the idea that anything other than generation of capital could possibly be beneficial to society; secondly, to force higher fees - and higher debt to be repaid - on students who will go on to earn less seems blatantly unfair, and goes against Hinds’ own second factor.

I think the promotion of arts and humanities subjects as non-beneficial to society is short-sighted

So, Hinds’ proposed criteria for differential fees according to course fall flat on their face. What of the other suggestions as to how the current system might be revised and tweaked? One possible suggestion is to lower the tuition fee cap. However, while it would reduce the burden on students and graduates overall, the idea of a lower tuition fee cap would also entrench inequalities, with low-income graduates reaping less benefit than the better-off. Higher-earning graduates, or those who were better-off when they entered higher education and therefore required smaller maintenance loans, would finish paying sooner and pay less overall; lower-earning graduates, or those from low-income backgrounds and with larger maintenance loans, who wouldn’t finish paying back their loan before the cut-off regardless of the lowered cap, would experience no change to their situation. Perhaps, as claimed by Angela Rayner, tweaking the current system is too little, too late, and a much more comprehensive and urgent overhaul is required.

However, my main issue with much of the above discussion about how to weigh up the value of a university degree against tuition fees paid by individual students is its contribution to the prevailing perception of education recast as a consumer commodity. With students treated as consumers, and universities run as businesses, quality of education is no longer a priority. UoB may have escaped the widespread UCU strike over pension changes, but with teaching staff on zero-hours contracts, a horrendously over-salaried Vice-Chancellor, and the launch of an oil-funded money-machine in Dubai, it is clear that our university is sadly no exception to the devaluing of education in favour of profit.


15th March 2018 at 9:00 am

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