Martha Henriques is about to start the third year of her Natural Sciences degree at the University of Cambridge. She has recently spent a week as an intern in the Science Policy Centre, which included some time looking over the Government’s recent Higher Education White Paper. As a current science undergraduate, we asked her to share her thoughts on the impact that the upcoming changes to the Higher Education (HE) system in the UK might have made on her choices when applying to university. This post is a personal reflection, and does not represent the views of the Royal Society.

“As a student going into my third year at university it is intriguing to reflect on the changes that the new HE reforms would have made to my education. The University of Cambridge is one of more than 70 HE institutions that will be increasing tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012. On graduation from Cambridge in 2012 I will have accumulated debts of over ten thousand pounds in tuition fees alone; a paltry sum when compared to the debts that will be faced by those students starting at the University just a few months after I leave it.

How would life have changed for me if I had matriculated just three years later? I doubt very much that even the prospect of such debts would have deterred me from taking a place at the university that I had decided was the ideal one for me.  The process of choosing a university was a difficult enough task three years ago when the magnitude of prospective debts was not a factor to influence my decision. Indeed, on my UCAS form three years ago there was not a single university that is now planning to offer a degree level education for less than the maximum cap of £9,000.

One of the main arguments put forward in support of the HE reform is that price competition between universities will force them to raise standards and deliver value for money to the student. A central assumption is that the student will discriminate between universities on grounds of price: in other words, students will consciously make a decision to choose one university over another simply because it will be cheaper.

As a student who chose my university primarily on academic grounds, I wonder whether price discrimination is beneficial when it comes to influencing choice of university. Different universities inherently have different strengths and specialisms which attract students who value those attributes. It is a concern that the introduction of market economics to the educational system may lead students to compromise on the university that best suits their wants and needs to opt for another institution on grounds of monetary value.

Other issues relevant specifically to the future of science in the UK arise from the proposed HE reforms. Giving HE institutions the ability to charge different tuition fees for different subjects is likely to have an impact on uptake of science subjects at degree level. There is no escaping the issue that science is expensive to teach; the experimental nature of science is as fundamental in degree level education as it is in research, but it also incurs significant costs. The vast quantities of lab consumables used in practical classes, the extra teaching hours required to supervise them, and the maintenance of safe laboratories push costs for science far above those of arts subjects where teaching can happen solely in lecture theatres without compromising on the quality of education.

In my experience as a student of biology and chemistry under the current flat-rate tuition fee system, I do indeed feel privileged to have received such good value for money. However, this is an issue that often rankles my contemporary arts students. In this respect, perhaps differential pricing of science and arts subjects to reflect their relative costs will be perceived by some as fairer than the current system. However, at present the UK cannot supply its own demand for graduates in science and engineering, resulting in an ever-widening skills shortage. Adding a further financial burden to pursuing a degree in a science, engineering, or technology-related field through charging higher tuition fees than in arts and humanities subjects is only likely to exacerbate the current problem. Passing on the cost of experimental science to its students may seem like a fair deal, but the wider social implications of such a strategy must be carefully considered to avoid pouring salt on the wound.

Further issues with the HE reforms not specific to science arise from the unexpectedly high uptake of the right to charge maximum tuition fees by HE institutions. There is a concern that the high levels of funding required to cover the loans for these high fees will actually cost more to the Treasury in the immediate term than the whole scheme will save. In an attempt to resolve this, the recent HE white paper proposes that student numbers will be capped at current levels. High-achieving students, those who obtain AAB or above at A-level or equivalent can be recruited freely, but quotas will apply to those who do not reach this benchmark. A chief concern is that the new proposals will create a two-tiered system which further restricts access for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to the most selective universities.

For me the HE reforms would not have changed my choice of university or the outcome of my higher education, other than attaching a heftier price tag for consideration on graduation. Nor would higher tuition fees have deterred me personally from choosing to study science subjects at university. However, I suspect that I am part of a privileged minority to be able to come to that conclusion. Despite the Government’s stated priority of increasing social mobility, concern is greatest over the future of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may find themselves with narrowing opportunities as a result of these reforms.

Against a backdrop of recent student protests and heated debate on all sides, the future of higher education in the UK remains fraught with difficulties. The position of science education at degree level seems to be particularly vulnerable; questions over how science education will be protected under the new scheme will have to be answered.”

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