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£6k for STEM? Key questions

  • 21 January 2015
  • By Nick Hillman

A new rumour has been sucked into the vacuum where Labour’s student fees policy will eventually be – a lower fee cap (£6k) for STEM undergraduates. Isabel Hardman is an excellent journalist, but I stress I’ve no idea if the party really is seriously considering the policy.

UKIP claim the idea is pinched from them, when in fact it seems very different to their policy of no fees for STEM students (adopted despite their education spokesman’s previous job as a history lecturer).

To my mind, the idea of £6k fees for STEM students more closely resembles Theresa May’s speech to a ConservativeHome conference in 2013, which called for ‘deep discounts in tuition fees for students who want to study degrees like engineering, where we have a shortage of skilled workers’. (It’s clearly not only the Lib Dem half of the Coalition that can float ideas contrary to existing Coalition policy.)

Anyone toying with the idea of lower fees for STEM students needs to consider a host of tricky issues that the policy raises (known in Westminster as potential ‘hostile questions’), alongside the big question of how to pay for it Here’s six.

1. Many (not all) STEM graduates have high wages. Why shouldn’t they pay back the same as others?

2. STEM disciplines already typically get extra taxpayer support via the continuing HEFCE teaching grant for more expensive (eg laboratory-based) subjects. Why should they get even more – and via a new tweak rather than existing mechanisms?

3. There’s no clear link between fees and demand for places, so what behavioural response is expected?

4. Demand for STEM is going up. The supply of places is going up too. So what problem will this fix?

5. If people were attracted by lower fees, it could mean less academically capable STEM entrants, who might slow down the learning of other STEM students. Does that matter?

6. One way to get more STEM students is to fix the ‘pipeline’ – ie to get more people doing STEM in schools. It’s not clear that this policy would help that. Could the money be better spent on other initiatives with the same pro-STEM goals?

Of course these are largely technical questions, when for many in universities the concern will simply be ‘why does X seem to care less about my arts subject / language / social science than about STEM?’ Pitting some disciplines against others can be an uncomfortable place for policymakers. Just ask Charles Clarke:

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