Universities Challenged

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?

14 Responses to “Universities Challenged”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “I wonder if there’ll be any leaks?”

    Re U Cardiff, is that last word spelt correctly?

  2. […] thoughtful post from Peter Coles summarises the current storm gaining energy to shake up the UK university funding […]

  3. Huw Clayton Says:

    Interesting post. Browne will doubtless complain if there are leaks that they come from a great depth and nobody has ever tried capping them at below desk-level before, so he needs to make the leak worse and drill new leaks to stop it. I think that’s what BP are doing.

    “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.”

    That’s how the first three Colleges of the University of Wales – Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Bangor – started out as well, until 1893. But I feel that’s rather different. These were university colleges that taught their own courses that happened to be validated by London – much as with the old University of Wales (and I agree whoever thought abolishing that was a good idea was mad).

    What Willetts appears to be proposing is that FE lecturers could offer degree-level courses at FE colleges – and I really don’t think that’s possible. It would just be another form of A-level. The whole principle of an Arts degree is that it is taught by an expert, or rather, several experts. Admittedly, the expert could deliver the odd lecture at a bit of a distance – but degrees from any university at a local FE college? Bizarre.

    Leaving aside questions of teaching and management, where we all know full well there could be improvements made, it would be a lot more helpful if Willetts ordered us to really think about why the university sector exists – because at that point we can all start working out what they should do, what they actually do, why they do it and how to improve. At the moment there’s just no vision for them, and speaking as an outsider trying to get in that’s really unhelpful.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Two very significant problems with the higher education sector in Britain at present are (i) the real variation in standards between institutions, and (ii) the perceived variation in standards (whether real or not). I could see some merit in smaller institutions preparing their students for examinations set by umbrella institutions or by external universities, as argued for by David Willetts. It could provide a guarantee of quality for students and for their potential employers. In turn, that might lead to these smaller institutions attracting more students because the degrees awarded would be more widely valued.

    Preparing students for examinations set by other bodies would probably be relatively straightforward at first- or second-year levels of a degree course. I personally would not like to teach material at fourth-year level if I did not have the responsibility for setting the examination, where converting a general syllabus to specific course material involves more personal judgement.

    I am puzzled that the British Government in the late 1990s did not choose to adopt a graduate tax in place of student loans. A graduate tax could be structured to recoup more money from graduates who achieve higher incomes, while offering some protection for students who find themselves in poorly-paid employment. Potential students from poorer backgrounds might be less concerned about risking a university education.

    It should be said that the weakening of the University of Wales and the formation of Cardiff University outside of the University of Wales were developments that received very little public discussion, as far as I am aware. These were policies developed within local universities and within the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, then foisted on society. There was relatively little debate within wider society or within the National Assembly. There was little public consent and little democratic scrutiny. The policies seem to have been generated within the managements of individual university institutions for their own local benefit, and not for the benefit of the higher education sector or wider society.

  5. telescoper Says:


    I think it’s also fair to say that any attempt to reinvent the University of Wales would be opposed by most senior administrators within most current higher education institutions, but probably supported by most academics. This is not a surprising dichotomy, since bureaucracies generally exist to serve themselves rather than provide a service to others.


  6. Bryn Jones Says:


    I’m interested that you feel most academics in the leading universities in Wales would favour a return to the old University of Wales structure. My perception when I worked at the University of Wales Cardiff was that was little interest in matters beyond departmental level by academics. There seemed to be relatively little ambition at that time, with little drive to achieve success beyond their own research projects. I found this frustrating. Perhaps things have changed.


    • telescoper Says:


      I said it would “probably be supported by most academics”. I’m basing that on what people have said about this in my presence. It is also probably the case that many don’t think about such issues or are badly informed. That’s one of the reasons I write about such things on here.

      There will always be people so preoccupied about research that they don’t pay attention to wider issues. Indeed there are some who seriously neglect their teaching and other duties for that reason too! The failure of academics to engage with the world outside their own niche area is one of the things that gets us a bad name.


  7. “At the moment students in England are expected to pay a flat-rate annual fee of £3225. “

    What is the average family income in England? £30,000 per year?

    What happens to students whose parents can’t pay this sort of money? We all know that one cannot be a good full-time student and earn that much money on the side.

  8. telescoper Says:

    I think the average salary is less than £30K, more like £22K. Students are supposed to take out loans which they only pay back once they have graduated. Most universities run some sort of bursary scheme for poorer students, but many also have to work.

  9. “Two very significant problems with the higher education sector in Britain at present are (i) the real variation in standards between institutions, and (ii) the perceived variation in standards (whether real or not).”

    There was some discussion on this topic here a while back, where those involved (e.g. examiners) declared that a first-class degree from a red-brick university or, indeed, from ANY UK university is just as good as a degree with the same mark from Oxford or Cambridge. Note that the UK does have external examiners, which many countries do not, and this of course tends to make things more uniform.

    So, why do you think there is such a real difference between institutions?

    As to perceived, of course there is a huge perceived difference: degrees in the UK are Oxford and Cambridge, and perhaps Manchester or London if one has some idea of quality, then everything else. If the real difference is so small, why is the perceived difference in the UK bigger than essentially anywhere else in the world?

  10. “I think the average salary is less than £30K, more like £22K. Students are supposed to take out loans which they only pay back once they have graduated. Most universities run some sort of bursary scheme for poorer students, but many also have to work.”

    OK, at least I got the order-of-magnitude correct. It’s probably possible to define “average” in different ways, and I suppose the average total income of the family (i.e. both parents) is more relevant (except, of course, for single-parent families with no financial support from the other parent).

    Isn’t a) the fact that many have to work and b) that the poorer will start off life post-university in debt while their better-off “peers” will not a) a huge disadvantage in life and b) a deterrent for good but poor people to study at all?

  11. Bryn Jones Says:


    There are about 140 university institutions in the United Kingdom. I do not think that there is much of a difference in degree standards among the top 20, 30 or 40 of these, because the external examiner system forces similar standards. The concern I have is over the standards in the least successful institutions, close to the bottom of those university league tables that newspapers like to produce. There may be a tendency for these less successful universities to use external examiners from similar institutions, and may react to their difficulties in attracting students with strong entry qualifications by lowering their standards. My concerns are specifically about the poorest universities.

    A bigger concern is that broader society is convinced that there is a great range in quality between universities. Potential employers will strongly prefer candidates from universities as high up the newspaper league tables as they can get. Applicants for university places will usually try to get into a university as high in the league tables as they can. Most of this is based on misplaced ideas about quality. It complicates the job market. It complicates the recruitment process within universities.


    • telescoper Says:

      My own view is that it should not be down to university departments to decide who their external examiner should be. The current system is far too “cosy”. I’d go for a sort of “college” or “pool” from which externals are allocated when needed…

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