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I argued in a previous article that most universities would charge the maximum fee of £9,000 per year because they saw the maximum fee as a badge of quality. While lower rates apply at some universities the average fee across the whole system is estimated to be £8,400. It is understandable that the maximum fee is necessary for more resource intensive courses but I strongly believe it is unnecessary for my own course (History and Politics) and that the University’s decision to charge £9,000 for humanities degrees needlessly impoverishes its students.
Funding for my degree amounts to around £7,500: £3,250 fees and approximately £4,250 of funding from the taxpayer. History and Politics funding is effectively being entirely withdrawn, so all funding in September 2012 will come from tuition fees. Instead of charging £7,500 for my course to maintain current funding levels the University will charge £9,000 with some means tested fees subsidy for a small number of students.
Far from needing large funding increases, the History and Politics departments could take large cuts and still provide high quality degrees. Charging £6,000 would amount to a 20% cut in funding for my course; the size that many public services, businesses and families have had and will have to cope with. There is a lot of waste that could be cut, of which I will concentrate on one example.
Well-paid lecturers are wastefully used to lead seminars and mark coursework and exams. After two and a half years of studying I have not noticed any real difference in the quality of seminars lead by lecturers and those lead by PhD students. PhD students running seminars also means they mark coursework and exams; a time consuming job that should be done by the worst paid person that is competent to the job.
I am arguing is that lecturers should concentrate on taking lectures and monitoring the work that their seminar tutors do. Both of the politics modules I took in my second year had approximately 80 students, with two PhD students as seminar tutors. I only saw my lecturers for one hour per week plus I had a one-hour seminar lead by a PhD student. This is in comparison with other modules which have more than three hours a week and lead entirely by a lecturer.
The less time intensive each module is for a lecturer the more modules an individual lecturer can run simultaneously. This means less lecturers would be necessary in each department, saving enormous sums of money. One of the reasons this does not occur more is because lecturers are paid out of a central staff funding pot, while PhD student tutors are paid out of departmental budgets. This means there is an incentive to employ as few PhD students as possible despite them being paid a fraction of a lecturer. Reorganising funding structures could easily change this. There are some exceptions to this such as computer-based modules like Politics 343 and History 282. However, these are a tiny proportion of modules.
By charging £6,000 it would also save money by removing any legal or practical requirements to provide a means tested fee subsidy; everyone would pay the minimum fee and no one would be funding their fellow students.
Many will argue that less face time and more of a focus on seminar tutors would lower the value of a degree to employers and label degrees from Lancaster as second class. A History and Politics degree from Lancaster is valuable to employers because only high achieving students get onto the course (ABB when I started and now AAB) and because students who finish the degree with a good grade are proven to be able, independent workers, with a wide range of tested analytical skills. Lowering the amount of tuition time means we will have to work harder outside of lectures and seminars in order to receive the same grade; I cannot see how this will reduce the value of a degree from Lancaster.
This idea could be unworkable but the underlying point should not be ignored. Instead of trying charge as much as possible to provide a lot of non-core services and facilities that look good in brochures, Lancaster University should try to provide the cheapest possible degrees while remaining in the top ten universities in the country. Less lectures sounds like a bad idea until you realise how much you pay for them. If I were retaking my degree from 2012 I would rather spend extra time in the Library and save thousands of pounds over the course of three years.