Archive for June 10, 2010

Universities Challenged

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by telescoper

The news headlines over the last couple of days have been dominated by remarks made by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, who has called for a radical overhaul of the way UK universities are organized and funded. Predictably, his comments set alarm bells ringing about the savage cuts likely to be coming our way, but I hope it’s not just about slash-and-burn and that some imagination is applied to the problem of sorting out the mess the system has become. We’ll see.

According to a piece in the Guardian, for example, Willetts suggested that some students could study at smaller local colleges instead of going to a big university, but these colleges would teach courses designed and administered by the larger “elite” institutions, such as the University of London. This suggestion isn’t  exactly new because it’s actually how things used to work many years ago. In fact, Nottingham University, where I used to work used to be Nottingham University College and its degrees, along with those of a number of similar provincial universities, were University of London degrees. Nottingham University only got the power to award its own degrees in 1948. Of course, there wasn’t really such a thing as distance learning in those days, so there’s a possibility that a 21st Century revival of this basic idea could turn out very differently in terms of how things are actually taught.

On the up side of this suggestion is the fact that it would be a lot easier to maintain standards, if examinations were set by a common body. On the down side is the fact that the distinctive flavour of speciality courses taught in different colleges, which is a strength of research-led teaching, would be lost. In between these positives and negatives there is a huge grey area of questions, such as where the funding would go, precisely which universities should administer the changes and so on. A lot of thinking and planning will be  needed before anything like this could be implemented.

Let me add two more specific comments to this. First, I think Willetts’ suggestion would make a lot of sense here in Wales where it could be easily implemented by returning to the old University of Wales.  As I’ve mentioned before, as well as suffering from many of the problems besetting the English university system, the Principality has a few extra ones all its own. Among the most pressing is the proliferation of small colleges and the consequent duplication of administrative systems. I think a great deal of money could be saved and teaching quality improved by cutting out the unnecessary bureaucracy and having the smaller places administered by a larger central University (as Willetts imagined with the University of London).

My other comment is specific to my own subject, physics (and astronomy). The problem with this – and other laboratory based STEM subjects – is that it’s very difficult to imagine how they can actually be taught at all at degree level without access to research laboratories for, e.g., project work. This is why physics is only taught in 40-0dd of the 131 universities and colleges around the UK. You can call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to separate teaching from research in science subjects in the way this plan seems to suggest. I know some colleagues of mine disagree strongly with this, but there you go.

Behind this proposal is the issue of student funding, as it is at least partly motivated by the suggestion that students could stay at home and study at a local college instead of moving to a university further away, which would necessitate them taking out student loans which the Treasury has to pay out. 

There’s also the issue of fees. At the moment students in England are expected to pay a flat-rate annual fee of £3225. In addition to this the government pays to the University concerned an amount called the “Unit of Resource”. Last year, in England, the basic amount was around £4K but there is multiplier for more expensive courses. Clinical medicine, for example, attracts four times the basic rate. Subjects like physics and chemistry get a multiplier of 1.7 (so each student comes with around £6.7K of funding). Subjects with no laboratory component, i.e. most Arts and Humanities courses,  just get the bog-standard amount.

I think there’s an obvious problem with this system, namely that physics (and other science subjects) are  much more expensive to teach than the formula allows for. The total income per student for an arts subject would be about £7.2K, while that for physics is about £10K. Why bother with all that expensive laboratory space and shiny new kit when the funding differential is so small. That’s another reason why so many universities have scrapped their physics departments in favour of cheaper disciplines that generate a profit much more easily.

Coincidentally I attended a lunch yesterday with some of our soon-to-be-graduating students. I’ve been a member of a committee working on updating our Physics courses and we wanted to discuss the proposed changes with them. One of the group was a mature student who had already done an English degree (at another university). She said that a physics drgee was much harder work, but was impressed at how much more contact she had with staff. Like most physics department, virtually all our teaching is done by permanent academic staff. Students doing  Physics at Cardiff get about three times as many contact hours with staff as students doing English. It’s unfair to compare apples with oranges, but I’m convinced the funding model is stacked against STEM subjects.

The awful financial climate we’re in has led to a general sense of resignation that the government contribution to university education (the Unit of Resource) is going to decrease and the student contribution go up to compensate. However, there’s a Catch-22 here for the Treasury. If the tuition fee goes up students will have to borrow more, and the Treasury doesn’t want to take on more  subsidised student loans. It seems much more likely to me that the cuts will be achieved by simply reducing the number of funded places. However, in the light of what I argued above, I think this is a great opportunity to think about what is the correct Unit of Resource for different subjects. If we all agree the country needs more scientists and engineers, not less, I’d argue that funded places elsewhere should be cut, and that the difference between arts and science units of resource also be substantially increased.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that there should be zero-rated courses, i.e. those which students are welcome to take if they pay the full cost but to which the government will not contribute at all. That should put an end to the Mickey Mouse end of Higher Education provision once and for all.

PS. A review of the tuition fee system is currently taking place but isn’t due to report until the autumn. It is led by Lord Browne who was formerly the boss of BP. I wonder if there’ll be any leaks?