There’s been a lot of talk about AC Grayling’s the New College of the Humanities.
It’s a useful thought exercise to consider why there hasn’t been a similar ‘New College of the Sciences'; could one be financially viable and, if so, what students might pay for it?
Paying more for STEM
Since the spectre of rising student fees emerged, CaSE has argued that it is vital that they do not vary between subjects within a university. If higher prices were to be charged for science and engineering subjects then this might deter students from particular backgrounds studying them, counter-acting the massive range of efforts to do the exact opposite. We’ve discussed concerns over variable subject fees with Ministers, civil servants, and Vice-Chancellors, but there is little appetite to apply constraints.
We’re already starting to see the signs of this happening. Of the 108 universities so far listed in the Guardian spreadsheet, 19 propose to charge variable fees (although some of these vary only between foundation and full degrees). At least 8 universities (Bolton, Coventry, Derby, Manchester Metropolitan, Roehampton, Staffordshire, Sunderland) intend to charge more for lab-based subjects, or specialist courses requiring more resources.
The biggest range so far has been announced by the University of Bolton, which plans to charge £6,300 for classroom-based courses, but £8,400 for laboratory or specialist courses. However, Bolton also notes that “the majority of those students opting for £8,400 pa band courses are also likely to be eligible for fee waivers of up to £1,200 pa from the Government’s [STEM] funding.” More on this later…
England needs a good supply of well-qualified science and engineering graduates. Current and previous Governments have tried to ensure that their education is appropriately funded. Universities have been receiving 70% more in teaching grants for students studying science and engineering, as compared with those taking library-based subjects (this comes from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE). But this boost isn’t enough to actually make up for the extra teaching costs, so these subjects are further topped-up with HEFCE funding for ‘Strategic and Vulnerable Subjects’.
The 2010 report by Lord Browne on Higher Education Funding proposed that HEFCE subsidises fees “to secure the delivery of priority subjects and sustain demand from students”. Tuesday’s Higher Education White Paper confirmed that “HEFCE will remain responsible for allocating the remaining teaching grant to support priorities such as covering the additional costs of subjects, such as Medicine, Science and Engineering, which cannot be covered through income from graduate contributions alone.”
There is to be a consultation on allocating the teaching grant from 2012/13. Meanwhile, the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has assured us that public financial support for higher education will continue to be “very substantial”, with the HEFCE teaching grant estimated to be worth around £2 billion in 2014/15. But it leaves universities in the awkward position of setting their fees without knowing what income they will be getting to support the different courses.
While universities receive a teaching grant based on a precise number of factors including the number of students on different courses, they can spend that money just as they choose. It will be bizarre if students are charged more for sciences on the basis that they are resource heavy, while universities are being subsidised for those very students. In contrast, the University of Bolton seems to be tying the Government subsidy directly to a fee waiver, although this waiver may not be enough to bring the fees for laboratory subjects down to the level of classroom-based courses.
Access for All?
As well as being concerned about the overall level of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) uptake, CaSE has highlighted the risk that higher fees may affect different groups of students in different ways.
Despite the fact that no finance is required upfront, a system in which greater student debt is accrued at certain universities or for certain subjects is likely to affect participation, with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely than others to be discouraged from courses or universities which would lead to higher levels of debt. Also, graduates from some ethnic minorities initially do less well in the labour market and they may therefore be less willing to take on increased debt at university.
It’s also now normal for many engineering and the physical sciences degrees to last four years (e.g., the MPhys), especially for those considering an industrial or academic research career. Adding a third onto the average graduate debt may deter students from these important courses.
The financial savings from living at home have already affected students’ choices of where to study. HEFCE does have some responsibility for monitoring total and geographic delivery of priority subjects. The redistribution of student numbers as a consequence of lifting the limit on students with AAB grades at A level could lead to a reduction of STEM courses, limiting their geographic distribution and therefore access for students living at home.
But HEFCE may find if difficult to respond in a timely manner. The new English Higher Education free market will probably take many years to reach any sort of equilibrium with the opportunity for “student purchasing power” to feedback to affect pricing occurring just once a year – perhaps less frequently than major economic or policy changes.
Seal it with a KIS
One of the justifications made for charging students large fees are the financial benefits that graduates gain in salary terms. Partly because of this, universities will soon be required to publish Key Information Sets (KIS) detailing the outcomes of former students on their courses so that prospective students can check their likely salary outcomes. And the Government has just launched its own website including estimates of salary outcomes for different career choices and loan repayments, although the calculations behind these have already come in for serious criticism.
But the KIS could be quite off-putting at first glance, particularly because they focus on average salaries. Salary data should be split by outcome as there would be quite different expectations for post-graduate students and those entering the job market.
And this cost-value trade off is only really justifiable when considered at the group level. There is little account taken for an individual science graduate who has paid for a high-quality degree and seeks to share his or her knowledge by teaching the next generation. Future teachers will end up paying back a similar amount to future bankers, whatever the value of their education to wider society.
Where is the New College of the Sciences?
The New College of the Humanities (NCH) was launched at the start of this month – offering degrees in English, philosophy, history, economics and law. It will charge £18,000 in fees a year and is intended to deliver a healthy profit. The College states that its “scholarship and exhibition schemes ensure that finance should not be a barrier to any talented UK student” and it has been reported that there will be assisted places for one in five of the first 200 students. (Although having 13 out of 14 of the Professoriate as men suggests that its approach to diversity may not be totally rounded).
Notably the NCH only offers a few science modules, not full science courses, despite having engaged prestigious professors of science. Quite possibly the charges required to make the healthy profit desired were judged to be unacceptable to the English market.
Another example is the University of Buckingham which compresses a standard degree into two years and will be charging students a flat rate of £11,025 a year in 2012. However, it only offers limited STEM subjects (Computer Science and Psychology) and charges £20,000 pa for postgraduate clinical courses.
Given the higher rates that many publicly funded universities plan to charge for science and engineering subjects, and the large costs associated with private courses, it looks like a private New College of the Sciences would come in with worryingly expensive and thus exclusive charges for entry – perhaps enough to make it uneconomical to even try.
The likelihood of a New College of the Sciences looks pretty slim to us and highlights the need for public support for science and engineering courses to be strong and sustained. If England is unable to produces the numbers of STEM graduates it needs to support its research base, teaching sector, and innovative growth, then it will not just be STEM students who are paying too much – the cost will be far greater for the country as a whole.