The amazing shrinking degree

The content of some degree courses has halved in the last 30 years, says Paul Taylor. Top up fees would not stop this trend
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The Independent Online

The Government's rejection of the Russell Group's proposal to allow universities to charge market-rate fees, will lead to anger and frustration among cash-strapped pro-vice-chancellors. But would the introduction of a market-driven funding system really resolve the problem of expanding the higher-education sector? Why is it that British universities can no longer offer an education comparable with leading American universities?

The Government's rejection of the Russell Group's proposal to allow universities to charge market-rate fees, will lead to anger and frustration among cash-strapped pro-vice-chancellors. But would the introduction of a market-driven funding system really resolve the problem of expanding the higher-education sector? Why is it that British universities can no longer offer an education comparable with leading American universities?

What the Russell Group universities have not told us, in hard figures, is how an injection of cash through an increase in student fees would be spent. Looking at the pattern of spending in universities over the last 10 years, it is not difficult to predict that the likelihood of any significant increase in the funds allocated to teaching is extremely remote.

There are three areas where universities have spent massively during the Nineties boom. The first is in real estate. The construction of impressive new "learning centres" to cater for a mass, mobile, autodidactic audience has taken precedence over recruiting new lecturers to teach new classes. Even more costly has been the acquisition of prestigious old buildings such as the Royal Naval College by the University of Greenwich. The annual cost of servicing the debt on this edifice is more than the salary costs of a large teaching faculty; like the recently opened University of East London Docklands campus, however, it gives the university an important marketing advantage. In London, location is all.

The second is non-teaching staff. As universities have become much bigger and more complex institutions, spread across wide geographical areas and with wider course portfolios, management tasks have increased and consequently the numbers of managers recruited to deal with them. Add to this the pressure on management workload of quality assurance - spawning a proliferation of quality managers - and the hiring of a whole raft of service staff to promote a customer-friendly environment - from security guards, equal opportunities officers and receptionists to admin assistants for overworked deans - and the costs of administration rocket. In many universities, despite the contracting-out of services such as catering, non-teaching staff now make more than two thirds of total employees.

The third area is marketing. Traditionally, universities have only spent small sums on advertising, for new posts for example, but the spending on media advertising of degree courses has ballooned in the last 10 years, particularly in the new universities desperate to recruit students from non-traditional backgrounds. Even greater spending on marketing has been in the recruitment of overseas students, which involves substantial outlay on delegations to Kuala Lumpur and international student fairs in Jakarta. A multimillion marketing spend is now commonplace in many universities, with annual media advertising regularly exceeding £2m.

To these three growing cost centres must be added the costs of consultants, hired by universities to deal with all of those political problems that cannot be competently or amicably resolved by heads of departments, such as restructuring the university to fit into fewer faculties, or decentralising admissions. Worse still, many lecturers have taken on an increasing number of such tasks at the expense of teaching. If such hidden costs were revealed, then the total proportion of university resources dedicated to teaching would look very modest indeed.

How is it, then, that universities have coped with a massive increase in student numbers? If the relative spending on teaching has fallen as well as the unit of resource per student, surely the teaching situation must be catastrophic, with lecture theatres packed and lecturers teaching very long hours?

While larger class sizes have become the norm, and many lecturers undoubtedly have large teaching loads, neither of these factors alone would account for the absorption of greater student numbers. The extra capacity has been created by the shrinking of the curriculum. With the introduction of a modular curriculum and the Credit Accumulation and Transfer System, came the opportunity to reduce degree courses to a common number of "units", typically 415-credit units per semester. Course directors were obliged to reduce their course programmes to fit into the new system, by combining two course units into one or eliminating others altogether; within a few years, degree programmes were pared down to a fraction of their original breadth.

My own case is revealing. In 1974, I started a degree in Business Studies at a London university, following eight subjects with a total of 21 hours in class each week. Fifteen years later, I returned to the same London university as a lecturer in the faculty where I had been a student; the same degree course now consisted of four subjects taught each week in a total of 10 hours.

With the pressure of increasing student numbers and no question of a commensurate increase in teaching staff, vice-chancellors were faced with two alternatives: a substantial increase in class sizes, which would have met with stiff resistance from staff and students, or a reduction in curriculum. They chose the path of least resistance.

While few students will complain about a reduced workload, most will not realise that an undergraduate degree in the year 2000 requires about half the study time of its 1970s predecessor - I would argue that this shrinking of the curriculum is an impoverishment of our university system. Have degree courses in the top US universities suffered a similar fate? Can students spend 10 hours per week in class and get a degree in business or engineering from Stanford or UCLA? Yet I hear no calls from supporters of student fees to expand the curriculum to its former, more challenging breadth.

In the debate on university fees, teaching isn't on anyone's agenda. The Russell Group universities, if they have their way on charging market rates for students, will not spend a penny more on teaching. After the buildings have been embellished and the consultants paid, they will use the cash to attract international stars from the academic world, whose names will appear in the departmental literature and attract big sponsors from industry. They will become global players because of the celebrity of the professors they hire and the academic standing of the journals that publish their articles; they will develop neither teachers nor teaching.

The new universities will lose the few high-profile researchers they have to the research-led universities, offering higher salaries with the higher fees they will now charge. To make up the shortfall in income from the loss in research revenue, they will be forced to recruit more students, which will please the Government, and shift even more resources from teaching to marketing to recruit in a desperately competitive market.

By offering some of the highest salaries in football, England has become home to some of the richest and most successful football clubs in the world. But our national game is in crisis. A free market for universities will bring some of the glittering prizes of academia to Britain, but it will not provide us with a national standard of higher education that bears comparison with the world's best.

Dr Paul Taylor, Faculty of Business, University of Furtwangen, Germany

taylor@fh-furtwangen.de

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