How women are being priced out of STEM careers

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Moya Lothian-McLean
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The government are proposing a new fees system that threatens to price women in science even further out

Tuition fees are already a bone of contention in the UK.  The debate has raged particularly hot since 2010, when the Conservative party made it possible for universities to charge £9000 - a £6000 increase on the previous cap - a year for their courses. Now experts have warned that new proposals to stagger fees based upon predicted post-graduate earnings could lead to even fewer women studying STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects at a higher level and increase an existing gender in-balance within the STEM workforce further. 

The criticism follows the suggestion by Education Secretary Damian Hinds that arts courses should be offered at a reduced cost, in the light of a report finding that, on average, arts graduates earn half the salary of their STEM counterparts. But the move is coming under fire for its potential to further deter female STEM students. 

Female students were more sensitive to debt, physics professor Averil Mcdonald told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “If you’re under money pressure and fearful of debt, you’ll obviously go for the cheapest course,” she explained. “Women are much more pragmatic. They are […] focused on the end game and so choices like ‘I don’t want to rack up a huge debt’ do feature quite strongly in the women’s thinking.” 

The chair of the Commons science and technology committee, Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb, agreed with Mcdonald’s analysis of the prospective fallout from fee changes. “We’ve got to do everything we can to encourage more students to think about STEM subjects,” he said. “And if the message goes out you’re going to end up with a bigger debt by doing science or engineering or maths, what a disaster that would be.” 

Only 23% of the UK’s entire STEM workforce are female and currently, just 9% of young women, compared to 29% of boys, opt to study a degree or Level 4 qualification in maths, physics, computer science or engineering, research by charity WISE found in 2017. Within that 9%, there’s also a huge disparity in which women are able to go on to do a degree. Last year a report by PHD student Natasha Codiroli Mcmaster revealed that intersecting factors of gender, class background and family income have resulted in disadvantaged young women being far less likely than any other group to study enter higher education studying a STEM subject.

And the proposed earnings-tested fee system could also generate another problem, Mcdonald warned. “If fewer students are paying higher fees we’ll end up with fewer universities able to afford to run science courses and then it’s a downward spiral,” she advised. “[The government have to] be very careful to think through the consequences of what they’re suggesting here. I think they’re playing a dangerous game.”

Images: Rex Features


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Moya Lothian-McLean

Moya Lothian-McLean is a freelance writer with an excessive amount of opinions. She tweets @moya_lm.