BSc in student juggling

Lucy Hodges studies the plight of universities as they struggle to fill places
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The Independent Online
Students are going to university in record numbers but, like last year, not all universities are able to fill all their places. London Guildhall University, for example, has around 100 empty spaces, Sheffield Hallam is a few hundred short, and South Bank University, also in London, is 500 to 600 students below target.

Failing to meet targets established with the Universities Funding Council is a serious matter because it means loss of money. Going over target means squeezing more students in for the same amount of money; falling under means lost fees and having money clawed back.

South Bank expects to lose pounds 2m as a result of failing to recruit enough students in the unpopular subjects, according to vice-chancellor Professor Gerald Bernbaum. London Guildhall expects to lose pounds 500,000 and Sheffield Hallam will also find itself lacking funds, though it has not calculated how much.

Hitting the right target for students - guessing how many you might be able to attract and then finding them - is a nerve-wracking business for some universities. Missing the target means contraction - cutting courses and laying off staff.

London Guildhall has extra problems. As a former Inner London Education Authority polytechnic, it inherited liabilities and scattered, poor-quality buildings. That, combined with the difficulty in finding students, has put it in the red. It has virtually no science or engineering, no green fields, not a shrub to its name. Today, because it is on its own, and having to compete with old and new universities, it is less secure than it once was.

Across the university sector, places are hard to fill in mathematics, engineering, technology and the sciences, subjects that are considered intellectually difficult and not always well taught in schools and universities. The shortfalls occur despite government help in the form of adjusted fees to the universities to encourage the recruitment of students in these areas.

Universities are churning out graduates in psychology, law and media studies. But they are failing, despite repeated and energetic attempts, to produce the expertise in science, engineering and technology that the nation needs for a healthy manufacturing base.

It seems the country's youth want to be journalists and psychologists, lawyers and businessmen. They don't want to mess with what they see as the dreary, poorly paid worlds of science and technology.

These trends are being repeated again this year, according to spokesmen for universities around the country. Applications for media studies courses are, for example, 50 per cent up on last year, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Although few institutions report failing to fill overall target numbers, many say they have had to engage in elaborate juggling within subject categories to ensure they meet targets and avoid financial penalty.

The case of Newcastle University, a big, established civic university, is typical. With a 3,000 new student intake, it found itself short of students in physics, as well as in civil and electrical engineering (nationally, applications for civil engineering have dropped 12 per cent this year).

But Newcastle was over quota in marine technology and some other popular subjects. With a bit of deft massaging, it moved applicants around to ensure it hit its targets. "We've done reasonably well," says Ken Young, the admissions officer. "We have a result that is more or less dead on."

Problems have been more acute in the new universities. At Plymouth University, for example, an interdisciplinary course had to be shut down for lack of students. The BSc in electronic business management was desperately undersubscribed - only three people had applied for 20 places - so the engineering department decided to cut its losses and axe the course.

In addition, the intake for Plymouth's BEng degree in civil engineering was lower than hoped. The university had wanted 75 qualified applicants, and got only 55. But it was oversubscribed in other areas of engineering. With some delicate legerdemain it was able to arrange numbers so that targets were met. Ditto mathematics. In that subject area numbers were short by 15 on an intake of 60. But the final numbers look all right.

Dr Chris Ellis, head of the department of manufacturing engineering and design at the University of East London, had to shuffle his pack of cards, too. He ended up with five too few students in product design, but there were too many bodies in manufacturing engineering, so the missing numbers could be made up. The University of East London reckons it has just about met its targets.

That university and many others recruit significant proportions of students through the clearing system - which means students are chosen in a great hurry, without interview and without the careful consideration they are given if they go through the Ucas system.

Such universities are coming to be known as "clearing universities". Like Luton University, they advertise heavily during the clearing period. Luton advertised itself energetically during the clearing period as "England's newest and liveliest university".

According to its deputy director, Dr Di John, it has filled its places. "We have hit our targets for full-time and sandwich students. We are more or less spot on."

Universities are reluctant to talk about whether they have met their student target numbers. Any publicity, they seem to feel, is bad publicity - which is why institutions such as South Bank deserve credit for their openness.

The fear is that if an institution acquires a reputation as a loser, a place shunned by students, its applications will take a further nosedive until it no longer becomes viable. Some higher education experts are already predicting mergers, particularly in cities containing a clutch of higher education institutions.

"I would expect a shake-out in a number of institutions," says Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. "Higher education doesn't act quickly, but, yes, it will happen. The new universities are being squeezed between the old universities and the specialist colleges."

Universities have to submit this year's figures on student numbers to the funding council by 1 December, but the figures are not made public until next year. When they are, the whole picture will become clear.