Arts vs sciences: is UCL biased towards science students ?

Robyn Strachan sheds light on UCL’s supposed favouritism towards science


As an institution which bills itself as ‘the leading multidisciplinary university in London,’ an optimistic person may hope that it affords equal privileges and educational opportunities to both its science and arts students.

However, concerns have been raised in certain quarters that UCL favours its science departments, at the expense of both arts faculties and the students that study under them. How legitimate is this interpretation?

Certainly, as an English student, I have suffered drunken ‘abuse’ at the hands of physicists and medics: apparently I neither ‘study a real subject’ nor will achieve a degree of any real value!

However, it is debatable whether this stance is indicative of the attitude of the university as a whole, or even of that of society itself. In the light of the recent three-fold rise in tuition fees the real value of a degree has been placed under even more scrutiny than before, and therefore it is time to ask the question: Is UCL biased towards its science students?

The Science Library has considerably more computers than the Main library

As a starting point, and in order to gain a flavour of the opinions surrounding this subject, I e-mailed a brief questionnaire towards several society presidents and officers; unfortunately, only Glennis LaRoe opted to reply.

Glennis comes from a fairly unusual perspective with regards to this issue, as she is a Science student herself yet fills the positions of President of the Dance Society and Art Officer at the Union.

Her view is a moderate, well-informed one which seems far removed from some of the Scientists I encountered during Freshers:

Glennis, do you feel the facilities at UCL cater more towards science students than to arts ones? For instance, there are significantly fewer computers available in the main library than in the science library.

I feel the main library is lagging in its technology – yes. I have heard many a gripe from my arts degree friends about how annoying it is for there not to be an electronic issue desk like there is in the Science library – so this could definitely use updating.

However, I feel like I knew when I applied for UCL that it was a heavily medical and science research-based university, so I guess the balance lies in the fact that we are immediately in and among the arts and cultural hub that is London.

Not that that justifies stitching up BA students by under resourcing them!

What do you feel the attitude is towards arts students at UCL? Do you feel that other students view them as less intelligent, or that their degrees are treated as somehow less valuable?

I certainly don’t view them as less intelligent. Learning a language and churning out 4,000 word essays every week does not sound like an easy task to me!

If other people do I’d say they’re probably a bit up themselves and too concerned with what other people are doing.

As to value of degrees, I feel our generation is going to have to work hard and demonstrate ability and experience when entering the work force regardless of science or arts background.

What are your opinions with regards to a funding bias towards science students at universities in general? For instance, the government still funds 25% of each BSc undergraduate degree, whereas this does not apply to arts students.

I think the justification for funding science is that it is an investment in future technologies, progress, innovation, dissemination of knowledge, etc that will pay itself off in humanitarian value and reflect well upon national outputs and exports.

It is harder to convince the wider public that funding arts holds the same value, though I feel the arts are extremely valuable to society, just in a different way.

How do you feel the wider community view arts graduates? Does this perception differ when applied to science graduates?

Again I feel like if you are judging someone based on whether its a BA or a BSc you’re concerning yourself too much with someone else’s life.

Nowadays, your degree is completely what you make of it and I have always maintained that in an interview scenario your personality, practical experience, background, portfolio and skill set are going to be far more valuable than what is printed on your diploma.

Everything is case-by-case when you can completely change your planned career path between sixth form and the end of your third year at university.

Which degree offered at UCL is perceived as the most valuable? Which degree is perceived as the least?

All I know is whenever I say I attend UCL the assumption is that I do medicine, and when I correct them and say I do human sciences its often met with an “oh…what’s that then?”

Again, I reiterate what I feel about ‘value’ of degrees…you can spend your life memorising textbooks and get the highest first ever, but that’s not going to impress an interviewer if you’ve got nothing else to offer.

In your opinion, do science-based societies get more credit than arts ones? What added value do arts societies bring to UCL life?

Not necessarily – as an active participant in the arts I know we get a lot of credit, usage of a 500+ audience capacity West End theatre, exciting publicity and sponsorship opportunities, etc. which doesn’t always translate all that well for the science-based ones.

It is more what you as a member and the committee make of it and how they use their resources and the UCL Union as a platform.

Furthermore, I feel like arts societies have a surprisingly high number of very talented science students expressing their creativity – and its wonderful to see talent regardless of degree background.

But what the arts lack in resources, they make up in beauty

What I found particularly interesting about these responses is the indication of equality between types of course; Glennis expresses the marked opinion that, as students, we are (so to speak) all in it together!

However, there is a marked difference in the provision of resources at UCL between different departments. Although the history and grandeur of the main library make it a beautiful and inspirational place to study, it only has ten computers in the main section available for student use; when compared to the three cluster areas available for science student use, this certainly seems inadequate!

My own department, English, makes a net loss financially on each student it educates. There is a wealth of facilities available for science students, often integral to their departments, and these are not often replicated in the arts faculties.

However, UCL is highly respected in both arts and science fields. The Guardian league table ranks UCL top for Art and Design (at the Slade), English, and Psychology, with our university being considered 2nd in the country for Classics and a respectable 6th for Modern Languages and Philosophy.

UCL scores for science subjects are similarly high: we are top for Civil Engineering, 4th for Medicine and 7th for Physics.

The Times, while being harsher on UCL as a whole in their league table, ranks us 6th in the country for History, 3rd for Psychology and 4th for both Medicine and Biological Sciences.

Whatever the university is doing, in all of its departments, they are doing it right.

Is the government biased towards the sciences?

Under the new regime, a complete lack of government funding for arts degrees – as opposed to 25% of each science degree still receiving funding – leaves arts students decidedly at a disadvantage. So is the bias towards science students not a UCL problem but one that comes from wider society?

For most graduate level jobs, the actual degree you receive is irrelevant; whether you study Physics or Philosophy, the class of degree received and the institution it is from are perceived as more important.

Only a fraction of science graduates get to put their science-specific knowledge into direct use. Many will be in the exact same graduate environment as arts graduates, or train to be teachers, which in the current climate is something which we must take seriously.

From a personal perspective I feel that, in some instances, the outside world does not perceive my degree as particularly worthwhile or valuable and I know many of my arts student friends who have had similar experiences.

Comments such as ‘that’s not relevant to the real world’ or ‘that’s a made-up subject’ do occasionally sting, and almost trivialise the 27k debt I will rack up from tuition fees alone.

Certainly, the common perception is that we all sit in our underwear watching daytime telly, drink an excess of cheap vodka and sleep through lectures on the odd chance that we can be bothered to attend.

Public perception of students seems broadly negative and does seem to belittle the efforts we have made to give ourselves better opportunities in life. Just because our knowledge is mainly of the abstract or the subjective, does not make it any less relevant to real life.

Science students seem to have it easier. The general consensus seems to celebrate science degrees as more useful and more challenging, and praises scientists for their work ethic and drive.

Average Joe sees the 25-30 hours a week contact time of a Chemist and the 81/2 hours of the Historian or English student and assumes that the Chemist must work much harder.

However, this perspective ignores the piles of books to read and the reams of essays to write. I think it is ignorant, even arrogant, to assume that arts students do not work as hard as their science counterparts.

So, is UCL biased towards science students? Certainly arts undergraduates deserve some love with regards to our facilities, but I feel this can be accounted to the relative affluence of science departments and the specific rigours of a science degree.

As arts or science students, we are blessed to be taught by some of the leading lights in the academic field, as well as to be situated in the epicentre of the cultural and historical hub that is London.

If anything, the hundreds of Medics who dominate social events seem to have the advantage, if only due to the promise of a guaranteed job at the end of study.

However, I don’t feel it can be denied that there is a level of stigmatism attached to students as a whole and arts students in particular by the wider community.

Perceptions of arts students are rarely positive and tend more towards the pretentious, work-shy stereotype perpetuated by the media. We need to band together as students and fight this negative perception – we pay too much and work too hard to be demonised.

Arts and science students need to set aside their differences and band together! It would lead to the greatest good for the greatest number – Jeremy would be proud.

Photography by Saloni Miglani

What do you think? Do you agree with Robyn? Do you think UCL is biased towards the sciences and science students? Have your say and vote in our poll.