Tuition Fees

Last week, I travelled to UCL to meet Imran Khan, head of CaSE. Imran is an alumnus of the Imperial College Science Communication MSc course and was previously a researcher for former Liberal Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris. As Director of CaSE, Imran deals with a whole range of issues surrounding science policy. Today, Imran talks about tuition fees…

AP:       How do you think the Government’s decision to increase tuition fees is likely to affect STEM subjects in the future?

Looking at the big picture, it’s difficult to predict any direct effect. They might even have a positive effect. It has been argued that if students are having to shell out much more for their degrees, they’ll be much more consumer minded, they won’t go for things like David Beckham studies, or whatever. Instead, they’ll go for subjects that actually give them a leg up in their careers.

But we are concerned about some of the smaller-scale effects. I can give you a few examples: one of them is diversity. It’s been shown in the past that student choice about whether to stay at home for university or to move away from home is partly influenced by their own backgrounds. So, you do get cases where, because of someone’s economic or social background, they find that it’s cheaper or easier to stay at home for university. Consequently that affects which university and, perhaps, which course they end up studying. It has been shown that cost does lead to a change in behaviour. Clearly, it won’t really be a factor for better-off students. If they’ve got enough funds to make sure they can go wherever it is they want to go, they’ll be fine. I think universities will try and make sure that their science and engineering departments do reflect that. Of course, at the same time, we’ve got to make sure that science and engineering are subjects open to everyone, not just the elite few. I’m not saying it will turn into an elite few; I’m just saying we’ve got to be careful of those issues around the boundaries.

AP:       What about the teaching of STEM subjects though? Clearly getting the best graduates to go into teaching of STEM subjects is an important issue. In fact, looking on the CaSE website, I found a letter from Nick Clegg which you published online. If I could just briefly quote from this letter

“We [The Liberal Democrats] would also abolish tuition fees over six years, making teaching a more attractive proposition to graduates currently deterred by a high debt burden…We see them as unfair and a regressive tax on education. The debt which students incur because of fees disproportionately impacts on young women and on the less economically privileged. Such debt distorts career choices, and leads the best science graduates to high paying careers in the City, rather than pursuing what we see as more economically important, but lower paid, careers in science, technology, and engineering. With that constraint removed, we would look to see more young researchers, and more young science teachers inspiring the next generation of scientists.”

So, given the implicit assumption in this statement, do you think that the increase in tuition fees could cause problems of this nature?

Well, hopefully it’s going to be one of those issues we’re going to be bringing up with Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, when we meet him next month. We’re really concerned about what the department for education is planning, because you had not just Nick Clegg, but also David Cameron, saying very strongly that they want to actually increase the number of specialist science and maths teachers in secondary schools. Yet, everything that the department’s proposing so far seems to be going in the opposite direction: they’re scrapping ‘golden hellos’ and they’re changing the requirements for people going into teacher training. For instance, if you’ve got less than a 2,2, you won’t get any funding to become a teacher. We think that actually, given that we’ve got a massive shortfall in the number of physics and maths teachers already, is that really a smart idea?

You know, you’re completely right though: Cameron and Clegg both said things pre-election that the Coalition now seems to be going in the opposite direction on. We’re going to press and make sure that they realise that we do need lots more science teachers and maths teachers and that we need to have appropriate policies to help fill this gap.

This is now the last in this series of special blog posts. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Imran sincerely for offering up his time to speak with I, Science magazine. Please take the time to visit CaSE’s website and, if you’re interested in getting involved, you can find out more by simply clicking here

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