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18th October 2016

Where do our course fees go?

Equal fees and unequal funding disfavours humanities students writes Elliot Mills

Humanities students pay the same amount as those studying sciences. For a long time, I believed this to be absolutely fine. But then I thought about it for about seven seconds and realised that it makes no sense.

I have very few contact hours, I buy books which are not subsidised, and my department is not in need of any highly expensive new equipment to really see what Finnegans Wake means. Well, though it might be in need of such equipment, it sadly does not exist. It seems strange that I should be paying the same amount as a student for whose course is far more expensive to run.

Walking past and noticing the extent of newly-demolished buildings throughout the university campus, you might not be surprised that one billion pounds is being spent on this round of redevelopment.

If the new Business School screens are not a clear lens facing the heart of corporate strategy itself, then they need not have bothered. You have not seen a spreadsheet till you have really seen a spreadsheet. Certainly, we know that, on screens, we can rely upon the university planning committees to deliver—as it has been well demonstrated by the remarkable improvements in our collective quality of life since the biggest screen this side of Printworks was attached to the learning commons.

The overall ten-year campus masterplan aims to improve common areas such as the library, union and health facilities. More fundamental, however, is the goal of moving the north campus nearer the south campus. This means that it will be easier to navigate the university.

As well as joining the campuses together, by 2022, the centres for the School of Law, the Manchester Business School, the Medical School, the School of Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, Mathematics and Chemistry as well as the Manchester Engineering Campus will have been improved or redeveloped.

Meanwhile in the School of Languages and Cultures, the blackboards will be gently cleaned—perhaps even polished. Furthermore, it has been promised that 90 per cent of the chairs in the History Department will still be there by the end of the academic year.

Of course this is not to say that redevelopment in the fields of study and research that require it more than humanities departments should be forgone. These projects to renew facilities are highly valuable.

Yet, it may be worth observing what the road to this golden future looks like at present. There is something uncanny about the redevelopment of the university and cityscape that resembles its very disrepair. Once one project is nearing completion, another will begin. It is a cycle whose marks in the present are sites of damage.

This tension can be felt elsewhere in Manchester, as the vague ‘Circle Square’ building site is surrounded by graphics proclaiming: “a place to think, create, achieve the extraordinary,” whilst the moving of mud behind the barriers spreads into eternity.

Aside from the question of buildings and equipment, one wonders where humanities tuition fees could possibly go. Limited contact hours for arts students either mean that our lecturers have the highest hourly rate of pay on record, or that our money is redirected elsewhere.

If I had been taught by someone off the telly, then I at least would have known where the money had ended up. If Tim Lovejoy took my seminar on Slaughterhouse 5, I would be confused but satisfied with some tangible evidence of money being spent; tangible in so far as I could touch Tim Lovejoy, if I so wished.

I grant that this is a silly example, but within a department where we cannot ask for new equipment to improve research, it becomes difficult to think how money could be spent. On the contrary, it is not as if the School of Physics, for example, would have this problem. They are surely redundant of the need to employ some celebrity-scientist for lecturing.

Of course, when assessing the relative value of different areas of study, the discussion is lead into a game to which there can be no winner. By arguing for the lowering of fees of humanities subjects, you implicitly argue that these academic areas have less value in today’s society. Then, in arguing that these areas of study are just as useful or important as the sciences it seems necessary for equal fees across disciplines.

A former English Literature and Language student of the University of Manchester Anthony Burgess wrote in 1988 in his younger self that he “dimly felt then, and feel very strongly now, that there is something wrong with an education system that takes no account of passion.”

Perhaps the higher education system now does account for passion. Or rather, it relies on the blind passion of humanities students in their acceptance of paying excessive fees.

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