A reputation lost in the crowds

As student numbers continue to rise, the quality of university education is in decline, says Sir Richard Luce
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The Independent Online
The international reputation for quality enjoyed by British universities is under major threat. In many universities there is a decline in precisely the standards and quality for which we are renowned.

One benchmark of quality centres on the level of contact between staff and students. This is reflected most significantly, for example, through the tutorial system, which has traditionally been the best means by which academics can spark students to learn how to acquire knowledge, to stimulate the intellect and to seek the truth. Yet what we are now seeing in some universities is the gradual destruction of the system of tutorial support for individual students. In some, tutorial groups are so large that there can be no effective support for the student as an individual.

If education were solely a matter of transmitting knowledge, it could now be achieved much more effectively through information technology. However, although it can do much to support the academic's job, it cannot in any way substitute for it, and exclusive use of it would move us rapidly towards an impersonal society.

Today the average staff-to-student ratio in universities is 1-to-17. This compares with 1-to-11 a decade ago. Of course, some institutions have managed to maintain a good level of personal contact between staff and students. But in others the situation is deteriorating rapidly.

The heart of the problem lies in the failure to match the rapid increase in the number of university students with adequate resources to maintain quality. The Government and universities deserve great credit for accommodating a dramatic increase in the number of students in higher education. Just under 14 per cent of school leavers went to university in 1985. Today it is 33 per cent.

Moreover, the amount of financial support per student has compared very favourably with other countries. The Government can claim that total funding for teaching in higher education has increased by 45 per cent in real terms in the past five years. But, by contrast, financial support per student has declined by 25 per cent in real terms.

What we are seeing is a gradual erosion in the resources available for each student. But unless we face this issue now, we will be consenting to the destruction of Britain's well-deserved reputation for high-quality universities. The age of mass access to higher education should not be synonymous with the mass production mentality. It would be outrageous to suggest that the much larger numbers who now go to university deserve less favourable treatment than the elite who enjoyed the benefits of university life a generation ago. How many of this generation of students will be able to claim, in the same way that I can, that it was their tutor who sparked their interest and imagination?

What action is needed? The Government must comprehend the way in which its funding policies are actually affecting universities, and universities must face up to this new set of realities. A radical change to our funding system is required in order to release an adequate level of resources to maintain quality.

We have to start with the premise that government, of whatever political complexion, will not be able to produce sufficient taxpayers' support in the foreseeable future to maintain the level of quality to which we are accustomed. The growing number of students seeking higher education, together with the large number of competing claims on government expenditure in education and other fields, is evidence of that fact.

This requires acceptance of the principle that students who are able to must pay a share of tuition as well as maintenance costs. The combination of taxpayers' support with a properly regulated loan system must ensure that all additional resources are used to benefit the students' education and that no one is penalised through lack of means. The system must be altered gradually. We must learn the lessons of previous attempts to make such changes.

This is a good time for a new approach. The Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, is wisely undertaking a broad review of higher education. This is against the background of a freeze on the total number of students who will be financed to enter universities up to 1997 at least. It is most encouraging that there is a growing body of opinion in favour of a major change. The Labour Party, the National Commission on Education, the CBI and, above all, the majority of vice-chancellors have indicated a new approach.

It would not be right to allow further increases in student numbers until new policies are in place, if we are to safeguard the quality of higher education. We cannot afford to lose that previous asset of personal contact between academic and student.

The writer is Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham.