`Difficult to Defend’

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?


21 Responses to “`Difficult to Defend’”

  1. Nicely done. Is that astonishing low level of contact hours typical of humanities degrees at all university, I wonder?

    The government’s policies on 3rd level education and research funding are so out of kilter. There’s never been a case that the ‘reform’ of tuition fees was economic so I am beginning to share your fear that there is a hidden agenda of privatisation here.

    • I’m not sure, but on an anecdotal basis I think it is pretty typical to get less than 6 hours of contact time per week in such areas.

      I’d welcome comments on this, in fact, but I’m not sure I have many readers from arts & humanities disciplines.

    • When I studied physics, I had many friends doing Arts subjects – they all seemed to have very little contact hours per week compared to myself and friends doing engineering.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      A response to telescoper’s request for info on arts and humanities students. My son is doing a degree in illustration at Lufbra, which is recognised as having one of the best contact times in this field. He’s in his second year, and has (I think, because getting info out of a 20 yr-old is not easy) two 2 hr formal lectures, 2 half day tutorials and 1 formal (all day) practical class a week. The rest of the time is studio time, where he creates the great works of art that will keep me in my old age (!). Studio time, whilst not as expensive as running a lab, doesn’t come cheap, as staff (not postgrads) are on hand for advice, etc – not as formal as a lab class, but not unsupervised. So there is a fair amount of contact time. Probably more than in a humanities subject.

  2. Do we really not produce enough graduates to teach science in schools? Isnt the real issue they just don’t want to and go into other careers? Therefore schools should make the career more attractive to lure people away from other professions.

    • telescoper Says:

      That’s part of the issue, but it doesn’t alter the fact that there are far too few science teachers in our schools.

    • Monica Grady Says:

      The IoP produced a statistic five or so years ago, that was along the lines that even if 25% of all physics graduates went into teaching each year for the following 10 years, there still wouldn’t be sufficient teachers to ensure that there was a trained physicist in each school. So we are probably even further short of that requirement. How to make the profession more attractive? Smaller class sizes, better resources, more respect for the profession, less faffing (or f**king) about with the curriculum, less administration – all the usual things. Nothing a large, sustained and reliable increase in funds wouldn’t solve…

    • Matt Burleigh Says:

      There’s a very recent article about Physics teacher numbers here: http://bit.ly/fZifzp Govt basically wants half of physics graduates to go into teacher training. I can think of one way of achieving that – double the pay. But we all know it won’t happen. You teach because you have a vocation!

  3. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    There was a proposal at Sussex a few years ago that Arts and Humanities students should have a minimum of eight contact hours per week. Since this proved highly controversial, I infer that the norm was some way below that. I believe the 8 hours per week target remains a guideline rather than a rule. Arts and Humanities also have much higher reliance on `associate tutors’ (ie graduate students and bought-in hourly-paid staff) to deliver their curriculum.


  4. I do think the number of contact hours per week in physics is rather excessive, almost like being back in school. This may be justifiable for the first years, but IMO we should trust the older students more and give them more time to *think*!

    I fear many students deduce it’s enough just to turn up to lectures, labs, tutorials, etc – but we can’t assume just by being present they will be learning something.

    The question we should be asking is, how many hours private or guided study does it take to really understand (by doing problems) the content of the lectures? After a certain point, more lectures means *less* understanding.

  5. The “class” (lecture/practical/tutorial) contact hrs in science degrees tend to reduce a bit in the final yr, mainly as class-based practicals stop to make way for dissertation and project work (which has no formal timetabling, more an “expectation” of a certain number of hrs).

    The numbers (contact hrs/wk) Telescoper gave above would be pretty similar for our Life Science BSc students (Russell Gp Univ) – say 12 hrs lectures/wk 3-8 hrs practical or data handling classes/wk, 1 hr tutorial/wk in a gp of 5-10 students, all taught by the academic staff (except lab classes which are run by a mix of academic staff members and postgrad demonstrators, but never by demonstrators alone).

  6. telescoper Says:

    The 20 hours does refer mainly to the first two years. After that, most students do projects rather than set laboratory experiments so get less close supervision. However, at least for my projects, the students get about an hour a week in project meetings with me. That’s even more expensive in staff time than labs.

    Lectures are, of course, the most efficient in terms of staff time but perhaps the least useful in terms of education.

  7. Mr Physicist Says:

    I have certainly heard of abnormally low contact hours for friends of my children who have gone on to study arts/humanities subjects at university. So much so, that in once case (Sheffield) one of them got a part-time job for 3 days out of the working week!

  8. Farah Mendlesohn Says:

    At my uni (an ex poly) students have 8 hours of class contact time (down from 9 a few years ago) but also see tutors one or two hours a week. In addition there is a lot of feedback on written work (I don’t know how that works in the sciences).

    With regard to Mr Physicist, many unis now try hard to concentrate teaching on to particular days because we know our students *have* to work if they want to eat (these are not jobs for luxuries any more) so it’s not a good idea to use that as any indicator.

    The Pile ’em High mentality was a feature of the ex polys in the 1990s but when the caps were lifted there was an up-suck factor and for quite a while, if you wanted a small class in the humanities you should stay away from the more prestigious unis. I do not know what the current situation is, but with a premium on retention there are genuine factors preventing the more extreme scenarios.

    I have never worked in an institution that habitually replaced qualified staff with PhD students. It is much more usual for our PhD students to work alongside someone senior in order to gain experience. However, there is an effective PhD swap with many unis using the final year PhD students of others as Visting Lecturers. We could condemn this, but if we do we have to then consider how many of us were taught by people who had not completed their PhDs in the days when most lecturers got their first jobs before completing. A PhD student is often a committed and energised researcher and rather a good example for students.

    • telescoper Says:


      What discipline are you working in?

      I think you are admitting that students at your uni are actually part-time rather than full-time. Many students of course have to work, but most of them do so at weekends and in the evenings, rather than having been given half the week off.


    • Since Farah may not have seen your question I’ll take the liberty of asking for her and probably get it at least partly wrong, for which my apologies in advance.

      Farah works in creative writing, english criticism, media and history, though her emphasis is much more on the english than history side these days.

    • That should have said ‘answering for her’.

      I shouldn’t blog before finishing breakfast!

  9. I don’t think we have a deficit in the number of STEM students – in an ideal world we could never have too many, but we don’t live in an ideal world.

    Already those that choose the path of academia face a terrible pyramid scheme with an ever decreasing chance of getting a stable, well-paid job.

    The recent economic climate has left many of those who wish to go into industry also having trouble finding work and teaching still doesn’t pay enough to make it a viable option for anyone but those who really wanted to be teachers in the first place.

    I don’t understand why Physics teachers get paid the same as Drama teachers in most schools (they are paid based on seniority i.e. the Head of Drama or Head of Science would earn more than a fresh graduate) despite the massive difference in demand. It is true that Physics teachers are offered ‘Golden Hellos’ but surely if they offered higher salaries as well it would help to not only entice STEM graduates into the vocation but encourage them to remain there.

    • From what I’ve seen of several academic colleagues who had a go at teacher training – and ran rapidly away from it – the key thing that needs to change is not salaries but working conditions. Too much of what teachers do is crowd control and not teaching, and the work loads for someone who wants to do the job properly can be extreme. Your average academic, even in a STEM subject, is used to at most a few contact hours a day. In schools it’s pretty much full on contact throughout the day and you have to do marking and lesson preparation in evenings and weekends.

      And the other challenge to someone wanting to do the job properly who has a good knowledge of the field is the way the exams and syllabuses quite often are looking for adequate and not right answers. When you’re forced to teach to an exam where the answers are, at some fundamental level, wrong it gets very easy to lose your motivation.

      Of all the ex-postdocs in physics I know who have tried to go into teaching it’s not surprising that the only one still there is the one who went into the independent sector.

  10. Here’s a typically incisive analysis of the situation:


    Among other things, it seems Willetts has back-tracked on the issue of student numbers. Having originally indicated they were going to lift the caps on student numbers in England, it is now clear that they are not, in case the budget spirals out of control.

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