Archive for February 26, 2011

`Difficult to Defend’

Posted in Education, Finance with tags , , on February 26, 2011 by telescoper

My copy of the Times Higher arrived a little late this week, so I’ve only just seen the latest evidence that the Westminster government’s plans for English Higher Education are degenerating into farce.

For a start it seems that the government made a serious error in believing that the Office For Fair Access (known to its few friends as OFFA) actually doesn’t have the legal authority to impose fee levels on universities. The government had assumed that they would be able to prevent all universities charging the maximum £9K allowed under the new rules. But they can’t.

Since the increased tuition fee is being offset by cuts of up to 80% in teaching budgets it’s no surprise that universities want to maximise the income from fees. Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL have all already indicated that they will go for the maximum, which isn’t surprising since these are among the leading universities in the country. It may be that some universities, perhaps from the ex-Poly sector, might try to go for the `pack ’em high and sell ’em cheap’ approach to undergraduate degrees, but a more challenging issue is what the middle-grade universities will do. Will they try to compete on price, or will they fear that charging less than £9K will get them branded as second-rate?

However, if all universities charge £9K – which has always seemed to me to be the most likely outcome – then this costs the government much more than it anticipated, because it has to provide a much higher amount in loans. David Willetts has argued that the £9K limit is `difficult to defend’, claiming that despite the cuts a fee of this size would lead to a 40% increase in teaching resource. This isn’t actually true because universities will have to devote a large slice of the fee income to supporting less-well-off students and they are also being hit by huge cuts in capital funding, which will have to be made up some way. Methinks Willett’s famous two brains might have got their wires crossed.

Whether the £9k level is defensible or not, the government appears powerless to stop universities charging it, so is threatening to penalise research grants or to cut the number of student places if too many try it. This looks like panic to me.

The current state of British Higher Education policy is difficult to defend in other ways too. In among the figures spun out by Willetts is one that reveals that 80% of UK students are in subjects outside the area of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), which attract a lower level of central funding than STEM disciplines. However, the differential is not as large as you might think: there’s only a factor two between the lowest band (D, including Sociology, Economics, Business Studies, Law and Education) and the STEM band B (including my own subject, Physics). The real difference in cost is much larger than that, and not just because science subjects need laboratories and the like.

To give an example, I was talking last week to a student from a Humanities department at a leading University (not my employer). Each week she gets 3 lectures and one two-hour seminar, usually run by a research student. That’s it for her contact with the department. In my School, a typical student can expect around 20 contact hours per week including lectures, exercise class, laboratory sessions, and a tutorial (usually in a group of four). The vast majority of these sessions are done by full-time academic staff, not PDRAs or PhD students, although we do employ such folks in laboratory sessions and for a very small number of lectures. It doesn’t take Albert Einstein to work out that 20 hours of staff time costs a lot more than 3, and that’s even before you include the cost of the laboratories and equipment needed to teach physics. In the current system, however, students pay the same fee for STEM and non-STEM subjects.

This situation not only works as a powerful disincentive for a university to invest in expensive subjects, such as physics, but also rips off arts students who are given very little teaching in return for their fee. It is fortunate for this country that scientists working in its universities show such dedication to teaching as well as research that they don’t try to do what our cousins in the arts do. I sense a growing consensus, however, that we’re being ripped off too.

I suppose it could be argued that the big cuts in teaching grant in England do something to redress this anomaly, as the central funding element for Arts & Humanities subjects is cut to zero in the new funding regime. On the other hand, however, if universities do charge £9K for all subjects then the differential between arts and sciences will turn out to be lower than 2:1, as the central funding element for STEM subjects is far less than £9K. On the other other hand, if STEM subjects were to charge a higher fee than the others then demand would probably collapse.

To get another angle on this argument, consider the comments made by senior members of the legal profession who are concerned about the drastic overproduction of law graduates. Only about half those doing the Bar Professional Training Course after a law degree stand any chance of getting a job as a lawyer in the UK. Contrast this with the situation in science subjects, where we don’t even produce enough graduates to ensure that schools have an adequate supply of science teachers. The system is completely out of balance.

I don’t see anything in the post-Browne era that will alter this ridiculous situation. STEM subjects will continue to be strangled and universities will continue to overproduce graduates in other areas. Somebody has to get a grip. I doubt the Westminster government is capable of doing this. It has already delayed its planned White Paper on Higher Education, providing yet another indication that it has completely lost the plot.

Or maybe it’s making a complete botch of the situation deliberately, as part of a cunning plan to encourage universities to go private?


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