The inherent bias in Higher Education accounts for the problems in FASS

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I went to Cambridge for a conference last week – the Women in Maths Day. It’s an annual meeting which aims to give female post-grad mathematicians the opportunity to mingle with successful women in maths. As a minority group, it’s important to stick together.

It’s one of several conferences I’ve been to since I started my PhD eighteen months ago. I don’t necessarily learn a lot from them; it’s not uncommon at a maths conference for the only person who really understands the topic to be the one who is talking about it. But, as my supervisor tells me, attending conferences gives me the opportunity to see the work other people are doing, broaden my outlook on maths and become inspired to work harder.

Because of this I’m encouraged to attend conferences whenever I can. Although there’s often a lot of travelling involved, I don’t have to worry about the costs. Almost all conferences reimburse expenses to postgraduate students, and there’s plenty of money in the Maths department to pay for those that don’t.

Over in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, however, there’s a rather different story. As reported in SCAN two weeks ago, the Faculty has recently had to cut funds to support postgraduate students travelling to conferences because of a lack of money. Whilst several factors have contributed to the shortage, the Faculty has not been helped by the Government’s clear bias towards the teaching of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Although the higher education sector as a whole received funding cuts of £449 million last December, when the Budget was announced in March it was arts and humanities that were really feeling the pinch. An extra 20,000 university places, created to deal with an ever-increasing number of applicants, are primarily reserved for STEM students.

Universities who agree to increase their provision of STEM subjects are given extra funding. Of the £7.4 billion which the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has been given to play with, £10 million has been ringfenced to help institutions willing to shift their focus towards STEM. For universities such as Lancaster, this means an entire body of students left unable to afford what is one of the most important parts of a postgraduate and academic career: the chance for discussion and networking with other academics.

The moves are justified by claims that the job market needs more STEM graduates; that an increase in scientists and engineers will strengthen the economy. It’s true that at any university you care to name the arts students will outnumber the scientists. So an increase may be needed. But it’s certainly not needed at the expense of anything else.

There has been much research done into the value of a degree; the extent to which your grade and subject will affect the amount you earn later in life. There’s a strong correlation between science subjects and higher wages. With science degrees worth so much more in the eyes of the Government, is there any wonder?

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