Image: Warwick Media Library

How does university funding differ by department?

As the new WMG building, in all its glass-front glory, opens this month, many Warwick students (particularly those hailing from the crumbling ruins of the Humanities building) will be bitter with course envy not for the first (and certainly not for the last) time. Believe me when I say that, as an English student, there is little that conjures the green-eyed monster faster than a walk past the WBS building or overhearing tales of a PAIS common room complete with free coffee machines.

While it is unclear exactly how funding is distributed across campus, there is certainly the perception amongst students that departmental funding seems to differ drastically between the arts and humanities, and STEM and business, with the latter very clearly having nicer buildings and better networking opportunities. A student I spoke to from WBS told me she was very aware that her department had a lot of money and that this wasn’t a case for many others within the university. In addition to this, a creative writing coursemate of mine shared that she felt our department was doing “as well as it could” with the drastically lower across the board funding it received.

So while a WBS office in The Shard and STEM careers events every other week are something many students miss out on and feel disadvantaged by, there is now the very real potential that this gap may be getting even worse.

But is there a chance that certain degrees are actually worth less – both in time and money – than others?

In early November, the BBC reported that the government was considering a proposal that would see fees for certain university courses cut to £6,500, but for others raised to £13,500. There are two main ideas behind the scheme. The first is that a person studying medicine, sciences, maths or engineering will likely earn more than one studying an arts or humanities based subject, so their fees should be increased to reflect that future wage gap. The second is a little more practical and raises the point that arts and humanities subjects are much cheaper to teach than sciences as they have less contact hours and do not require the same equipment, and so should in turn be cheaper to study. As such, the argument is that a ‘flat rate’ for all students doesn’t accurately reflect the level of investment – financial and otherwise – needed for certain subjects, and therefore fees should be adjusted accordingly to account for the difference in cost.

And at first glance, it does seem like an idea we should all, particularly arts and humanities students, be on board with. I will be the first to admit that I have complained extensively about my fees, so shouldn’t I be overjoyed at the prospect of paying less?

However, there are rising concerns that these changes may do more harm than good. On the one hand, the changes might come as an unexpected, yet pleasant, surprise for students who already plan to undertake a humanities degree. However, there is always the danger of the reverse happening: that lower-income students are pushed away from medicine and science subjects and on to other, cheaper courses. Those who argue against the proposal say this is socially regressive and that restricting access to these subjects not on educational merit but financial capacity is backwards and discriminatory.

There is value to be found in every degree

But is there a chance that certain degrees are actually worth less – both in time and money – than others?

Many would argue that my choice to study creative writing is nowhere near as noble or significant as someone who pursues medicine. What is writing books in comparison to saving lives? As someone who has often had to justify and sell their degree choice to others as ‘worthy’, I would argue there is value to be found in every degree. All areas of study are important in different ways and thus are difficult to accurately compare or monetarily rank.

But what do the students of Warwick think?

Universities are already accused of running themselves like businesses

In a survey of students from a range of departments conducted by the Boar, 60% of the 135 participants believed it was unfair to charge higher fees for degrees that will typically earn more money after graduation and less for those that won’t. Many expressed concerns that the changes would deter people from both sides out of financial inability and the fear of not earning enough in the future. Several believed that the creation of a two-tier system would reinforce the cultural elitism surrounding STEM subjects, devaluing the contribution of those who choose to pursue the arts or humanities. Others were worried that it would lead to further confirmation of the marketisation of education, sending the message that a degree is only worth the earnings you’ll claim upon graduation.

Universities are already accused of running themselves like businesses, and the implementation of these fee changes would only increase that significantly. As one student put it, simply and brilliantly: “we shouldn’t have to pay more to earn more.”

This isn’t to say, however, that there shouldn’t be reform.

Over 75% of Warwick students asked didn’t believe the cost of their tuition fees accurately reflected the cost to the University of running it

The rising costs of attending university are, of course, a hot topic. Over 75% of Warwick students asked didn’t believe the cost of their tuition fees accurately reflected the cost to the university of running it. Just under 55% also didn’t feel as though they were getting value for their money with their degree.

An overwhelming majority of students would welcome a reduction in their fees, but perhaps in a fairer way that didn’t penalise students based on potential earnings. This is simply because the proposal doesn’t benefit any university students. It’s not just humanities students that this proposal would disadvantage. STEM is an area constantly targeted for recruitment to fill industry gaps, so why should they be charged more for doing so?

Something like the recent action taken at Birkbeck University, London, where fees are being halved to just £3,500 a year is much closer to the kind of change many students would welcome with open arms. David Latchman, master of Birkbeck, said he wished to “cut fees by 50%” after witnessing the rising number of “heartbreaking” cases of struggling students asking to be bailed out by the college’s hardship funds. And with campaigners linking the surge in the usage of mental health services at top universities to increased financial stress caused by hikes in tuition fees, for many respite from rising fees can’t come soon enough.

The government have said that we can expect more briefings, counter-briefings and pre-emptive strikes on changes to tuition fees, as the decision on whether to implement the changes approaches in the next few months.


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