One of the first questions you ask of another student when you meet them is “What do you study?”. Now imagine if the answer not only told you what subject they were doing but how much they were paying to do their degree. A banal question becomes loaded with notions of class, wealth and privilege.
The government is currently reviewing degree costs, with a view of slashing some fees to £6,500 for some degrees, but could rise to £13,000 for others. The two tiers here would likely be separated by the money the degree costs the university as well as the like income of graduates. If this goes through, it seems probable that STEM degrees end up costing a lot more than arts and social sciences.
It is easy to sympathise with the reasons for this review. I have complained multiple times that my English degree costs me as much as, say, Engineering, even though it does not cost the university as much and I am unlikely to get the same graduate prospects as Engineering students. But this does not mean it is a good idea to create a differentiated degree cost system.
We joke that arts students are at the bottom of the Warwick University totem pole – but jokes are usually only funny if there is an element of truth
There are several unfortunately obvious problems with making some subjects more expensive than others. The main one is that this will sharpen existing class distinctions on campus. STEM and business subjects already seem to get perks that my Humanities degree doesn’t. My STEM friends seem to come home with free food, have access to common rooms, and get a lot more support in areas like careers. The WBS building is sleek, modern and locked to outsiders. We joke that arts students are at the bottom of the Warwick University totem pole – but jokes are usually only funny if there is an element of truth.
Though the government says that cuts to arts fees would create more value-for-money, in truth, the cuts in fees would probably result in cuts to funding arts degrees. Unless a mechanism is put in place to ensure that universities use arts money to fund the arts, universities would have no incentive to keep up the quality of arts degrees. Full degrees might be eliminated, with others experiencing staff shortages or degradation of resources. Having sat in on department and faculty meetings, I know the struggle there already is to hire enough teaching and administrative staff with resources allocated. How could lower arts fees possibly help?
While arts faculties became increasingly stretched, there could certainly be an influx of students wishing to study arts degrees
Another serious problem is that, while arts faculties became increasingly stretched, there could certainly be an influx of students wishing to study arts degrees – students which would often come from poorer backgrounds eager to cash in on lower fees. It is problematic that the government, recognising the higher economic risk of arts degrees, would make them more readily available to poor students.
I recognise that currently degrees like English might be filled with students whose backgrounds enable them to study a subject they are passionate about without worrying too much about graduate prospects. At the same time, there are problems getting more disadvantaged students into STEM. One study from 2012 found that more than a quarter of medical students were privately educated. Surely the answer is not to disincentivise students from studying more expensive subjects, regardless of whether that buys them better hopes in the job market.
The value of a degree just cannot be seen as entirely about financial outcomes. Of course, people go to university because of career opportunities, but it should not be seen as the entire point. I chose my subject because it was what I wanted to learn about. It frustrates and saddens me that the government is trying to devalue that passion. Most of us study arts subjects because we recognise the importance of learning about ideas, arguing and learning how to craft an argument, learning to analyse what things mean, why they are written and who they are written for. Who we are as people.
The arts might not contribute to the economy the way our ultra-capitalist government would want… but the ideas discussed in our classrooms trickle down into the discourse of the everyday
The arts might not contribute to the economy the way our ultra-capitalist government would want (though, seriously, the creative sector alone accounts for one in eleven jobs and 90 billion a year in the UK, despite all the flack!), but the ideas discussed in our classrooms trickle down into the discourse of the everyday. The way we view the free market, nationalism, gender, everyday racism and other contemporary rhetoric would not be possible.
We should not let the government strip the importance of arts subjects down to the bottom line of what graduates make in five years. Rather let’s focus on making sure arts subjects and graduates are valued in our society, both financially and culturally.