Government funding cuts for "low-quality" degrees to disproportionately affect working class students

Beth Robson discusses the governments controversial proposed cuts to "low-quality" degrees

Beth Robson
19th March 2020
The government’s plan to cap the number of students attending university is set to disproportionately affect those from lower socioeconomic classes, academic experts warn. The cuts come from the Treasury’s need to cut back on government spending, of which student loans are significant with rising numbers of young adults attending university. The degrees most at risk for funding cuts are deemed “low-quality” and include subjects like sociology and the social sciences among many others.

The supposed need for these cuts comes from the large amount of loans being paid out by the government through Student Finance, but seldom paid back by students whose degrees do not yield high wages post-graduation. Consequently, the typically lower paid humanities degrees are most at risk of having numbers capped.

Academics such as professor of social mobility at Exeter University, Lee Elliot Major spoke out against these cuts stating: “Limiting numbers would be the death knell for social mobility”.

Major warns of a potential ‘clash of the classes’ if universities are unable to provide the “low-quality” degrees that poorer students typically gravitate towards. Feeding into the age-old ‘humanities versus the sciences’ debate, the proposed government plans appear to be ever-increasingly putting more merit in STEM fields. As a result, those who do not fit the STEM mould are left feeling left behind by the economic pull of London.

Lower socioeconomic areas rely heavily on graduates of “low-quality” degrees such as social work, and sociology which lend themselves to careers in areas such as policing, which are hugely under-staffed and yet desperately needed. Capping the number of students attending university for the supposed “low-quality” degrees poses a potential lack of people to fill the crucial roles needed in these areas, and could pose a real threat to the economy. This, in turn, will create a wider gap in social equality between the working and middle class, experts explain.

Professor Ieuan Ellis, pro-vice chancellor at Staffordshire University also expressed his disagreement with the proposed plans. In a region with a below-average Higher Education turn-out, it is vital that potential students of “low-quality” degrees are encouraged to pursue these areas despite a lower pay. “Talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not[…] we are giving our talented students that opportunity to realise their potential”, Ellis remarks.

Interestingly, it is current Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson who could have been hit by these proposed cuts during his time at university. Williamson studied social sciences (now known as sociology) at Bradford University, which currently yields a graduate salary of £17,500 after three years; marking the course by the governments standards, as “low-quality”. However, Williamson’s £67,505 salary would suggest that humanities degrees have just as much potential for high earnings as their STEM counterparts.

Alongside the proposed Ofsted-style monitoring of the credibility and value of degrees across the UK, the financial cuts to “low-quality” degrees looks to be a steppingstone in Conservative higher-education reform. Of notable importance is the using of graduate earnings as a means of determining whether a degree is “low-quality” or not. In light of leaks about proposed student loan “bans” for low-achieving A-Level students also, areas that have low-levels of Higher Education attendance or low-quality secondary school education look to be worst hit.

Of these areas includes the North East, which would be affected the worst across the country. The region has the lowest numbers of youth employment in the UK, however these cuts will only further damage the economy and growth of the region, and stifle ambition for social mobility. With the North East’s historic sentiment of feeling “left behind” by London, former Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, launched Opportunity North East to combat some of the regions roadblocks to high standard secondary education, and attendance to universities. These proposed cuts look to undo this work and are a cause for real concern for those residing in the North East.

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