Raising tuition fees for STEM prompts social mobility fears

Working class students could lose out heavily in leaked government which plan to raise tuition fees for STEM subjects while lowering them for humanities.

The proposals, due to be officially revealed in January, would see STEM students paying an extra £4,000 a year in order to fund a cut in fees for humanities students. Despite the increase in fees for STEM students, the policy is still expected to cost a net sum of £3 billion a year, with universities raising concerns about where this money could come from, and whether they would need to cut programmes such as scholarships and bursaries.

Alister Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK told The Times: “Unless this shortfall is made up from new funding sources, and guaranteed long term, we risk returning to a time when university places were capped and courses were seriously underfunded. That would be bad for students, for the skills needs of the country and, crucially, for social mobility.”

The government plans, if carried forward, would see STEM students pay upwards of £13,000 a year, while humanities students would pay a reduced sum of £6,500.

The proposals form part of a wider review initiated in the wake of the government’s disastrous performance in the 2017 general election. The election saw a shock turnaround in Labour’s fortunes, which many attributed to a surge in youth support. Turnout among under-24s increased by 15% compared to the 2015 election, and Labour’s lead over the Conservatives within this demographic surged from 16% to almost 45%.

The media widely attributed the election result to Labour’s proposals to abolish tuition fees. A YouGov poll at the time, however, showed that Labour’s education policy was only the sixth most important reason why young people voted Labour. Instead, young voters cited Labour’s overall manifesto and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as their top two reasons, followed by the NHS.

Conservative fears over losing the youth vote were compounded by Labour’s narrow victories in historically-Conservative university towns such as Kensington (Imperial College London) and Canterbury (Kent University).

STEM graduates earn an average of 5% more than their humanities counterparts in the first five years of employment. By the tenth year of employment, however, STEM students on average make 11% less than humanities student.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that many non-STEM subjects lead to higher graduate salaries than STEM subjects. For instance, a student studying economics can expect to earn £40,000 five years after graduation, compared to students studying biological sciences who can expect around £25,000. Factors other than subject-matter are also crucial determinants of graduate earnings, with the IFS finding that students at Russell Group universities earn an average of 40% more than other students after graduation.

The proposals come at a difficult time for the government, which is currently negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union. One in three UK scientists and mathematicians are from outside the UK, including more than half of those working in chemical engineering, a crucial British industry.

In an article for Scientists for EU, Imperial College’s Professor Arttu Rajantie, said: “[Brexit could] disadvantage the next generation of British scientists who would not have the same opportunities as their peers on the continent, and cause serious damage to UK science.”

Immigration disruption due to Brexit threatens to add to the UK’s existing STEM skills shortage, which is estimated to cost £1.5 billion, with 9 in ten STEM-related businesses reporting insufficient numbers of STEM graduates in the hiring pool.

While more students study STEM than ever before, only a quarter of those graduating with STEM degrees go into STEM employment.

The policy proposals, if unamended, risk further reducing the numbers of those studying STEM at a fragile time for science in Britain, with potential disruption from Brexit threatening to exacerbate an already chronic skills shortage.

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