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Should doctors and engineers pay higher fees than arts students?

  • 29 May 2015
  • By Nicholas Robinson

This is the third in a series of pieces by HEPI visiting researcher Nicholas Robinson comparing the UK and Australian higher education systems. The first two on maintenance support and part-time students can be found here and here.

The dust has finally settled on the debate over the tuition fee hike in England. Inevitably, that means it will soon be time to think about the next stage of reform. Should doctors and architects pay more for their degrees than aspiring politicians or nurses? That’s what Australia thinks. The government there sets three (annual) fee bands:

  • Band 1 – £3,000: Humanities, behavioral sciences, journalism, social studies, education, clinical psychology, foreign languages, visual and performing arts, nursing
  • Band 2 – £4,400: Mathematics, statistics, computing, other health, built environment, allied health, engineering, science, surveying, agriculture
  • Band 3 – £5,100: Law, business, economics, dentistry, medicine, veterinary science

The rationale behind the different fee bands is that they reflect a mix of private benefit and course costs. So because doctors earn on average more than engineers, who in turn earn more than artists, students studying these professions pay different amounts for their degree. Although law graduates have to borrow more for their degree, their higher average salary level means they are generally able to pay their student debts back faster than humanities graduates.

There is also funding from the Federal government, which makes up the rest of the cost of providing the course. For example, the government contributes a further £900 to business and £9,000 to medical degrees. This process is similar to the distribution of the remaining HEFCE teaching grant in England.

Differential fees create a good or bad incentive depending on one’s perspective. Are employable graduates the main aim of higher education? Then uniform fees encourage applicants to ignore tuition levels and focus on employability prospects. Or, are lower-paying degrees as valuable as higher-paying ones? Then differentiated fees incentivize applicants to apply to them by offering lower tuition. As institutions think of creative ways to squeeze out of the £9,000 straitjacket, and increasing data on the outcomes of different courses becomes available, such questions will come to the fore.

These issues will be discussed by Professor Nicholas Barr, Professor Christina Slade and Professor Simon Marginson at the HEPI Partners’ Policy Briefing on June 4 – free for those from HEPI’s partner institutions. It’s (just) not too late to register.

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