Universities or battery farms?

A huge increase in student intake has led to crowded campuses and fears about standards, reports Lesley Gerard
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The expansion of higher education announced by the Government in early 1989 was intended to transform universities from an elitist club to an American-style mass system.

Increasing numbers in higher education could be achieved, the Government insisted, without harming standards. More meant different, not worse.

Almost five years later, growth has been capped. The Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, has announced a major review of higher education, focusing on quality and the cost and funding of any further increases in numbers. Overcrowded campuses, overwor k ed lecturers and demoralised students are increasingly cited as evidence that the system is cracking under the strain.

Did the policy succeed in improving access to higher education? Or was it expansion on the cheap - ill-planned and underfunded?

Student numbers have soared in universities since Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State, launched the initiative. Stung by international comparisons of young people in higher education which showed Britain lagging behind, he set a goal of one in three in higher education by the year 2000.

The target was achieved seven years ahead of schedule, surprising both official planners and ministers. The method of funding was changed. Institutions received most of their money in the form of a tuition fee for each student rather than a lump sum as before.

The more students they enrolled, the more money they received. The incentive worked, particularly with the new universities, despite the fact that in real terms average funding was falling. According to teaching unions, the fee per student has been cut by 30 per cent in 10 years.

But there were other dynamics that contributed to this rapid and unexpected acceleration.

Recession and rising unemployment made higher education an increasingly attractive option to thousands of people who otherwise faced the dole queue. The influx into universities also included rising numbers of mature students together with 18-year-olds whose parents were first-generation undergraduates during the 1960s - parents who, having benefited from university themselves, were determined their offspring should, too.

GCSE reform drew more 16-year-olds into A-level study while an increasing number of professions such as accountancy cut off the traditional A-level route, preferring the kudos of recruits with degrees.

At the same time, universities became more aggressive and competitive, offering credit systems and more flexible courses.

One positive effect of this changing ethos was that it tapped into a group of people who had never before considered higher education.

Critics say the positive benefits of expansion have been negated by the lack of planning and funding for additional teachers and resources. Direct evidence, they insist, can be found in rising student-staff ratios, higher drop-out rates and cuts in spending on libraries.

In the new universities many lecturers complain that teaching has degenerated to "battery farming''. Student-staff ratios in former polytechnics have risen from 8:4 in 1979/80 to 17:1 in 1992.

Some institutions have ratios far above the average. Statistics for 33 new universities in 1992 revealed some of the highest ratios in Bournemouth (21:4), Greenwich (20:3), Humberside (22:7) and Middlesex (20:9).

Teaching unions insist the repercussions are unacceptable stress and intolerable workloads. A survey by the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education found that most lecturers sufferered intolerable stress at work.

And a study of working hours by the Association of University Teachers, whose members are mainly from old universities claimed academics were being "tested to destruction'', working on average more than 53 hours a week.

Liz Allen, negotiating secretary for Natfhe, says: "The system is cracking. Expansion has had an effect on the quality of teaching, especially on teachers' ability to work with students in small groups and threatens interactive teaching and learning.

"New university lecturers have worked hard to improve access for students from non-traditional backgrounds. These students need more support in terms of individual counselling and tutorials, not less.''

In its report Learning From Audit, the Higher Education Quality Council - the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principal's self-regulating body - found standards varied markedly between universities and individual faculties.

In a recent speech to academics at City University London, Dr Roger Brown, chief executive of the council, said: "The increase in student numbers and in the diversity of the student intake has placed personal tutors under considerable strain, leading to

significant qualititative differences in students' experiences of the tutor system. Supervision and monitoring of students on placements - whether abroad or in employment - are often inadequate.''

Tom Wilson, assistant general secretary at the AUT, believes the past decade has seen stop-start expansion inextricably linked to the Conservative determination to cut public spending. Under Margaret Thatcher, recurrent grants were reduced. For the previous two decades, funding for higher education had been based on the principle of demand. In the early 1980s, it was decided by the amount of money available and the expansion stopped. But in the late 1980s the Government switched back to expansion.

Mr Wilson says: "A cynical view is `did the Government expand higher education just to bring the unemployment figures down?' "

Drop-out rates are said to be rising. Push, the alternative university guide, claims one in eight students fails to complete the course because of overcrowding and student debt. The CVCP insists the figure is lower - around 13 per cent.

While more crowded campuses can be proven by counting the number of bums on seats, hard evidence that this has led to falling quality and standards is not so readily available.

Dr Brown says: "Nobody has found a satisfactory way of measuring quality over a period. On one hand, students in some subjects learn in the sixth form what they used at degree level. On the other, there is evidence of some academics saying that students'work is not of the standard it used to be."

He admits all degrees are not equal. "We are trying to set standards. But widening access does not necessarily mean reduced quality - it may just be different.''

Professor Lewis Elton, professor of Higher Education at University College London, says: "It is not in the interests of the funding councils to admit that with less money, quality has suffered. And if any universities blow the whistle and say we cannot cope any more, then they are making themselves look bad. So they have remained quiet for a long time.''

At the same time the number of first and upper second class degrees awarded by universities has gone up. This can be argued both ways. Is it evidence that standards have not suffered,or that institutions are adjusting the course work and making the examseasier?

"There is anecdotal evidence that tutors are aware that their students are having to take jobs during term time to make ends meet and may be forced to adjust the workload,'' says Professor Elton.

In truth many universities simply do not know whether standards have risen or fallen because they do not have the mechanisms to check. Ultimately they may always have to measure them against their own aims and objectives.

And as Mrs Shephard embarks on her review, opinion is divided over the way forward. The academics are still calling for more government funding and political parties debate future policy on student loans and grants.

Professor Elton in his report Management of Teaching and Learning for the CVCP calls for a national body to promote teaching and learning, to enable academics to teach more effectively.

"Expansion was carried out with no planning and money," he says. "They should have put £100m into creating change for the staff through the development of their teaching methods.''

I've been let down twice Janine Owen is a mature student in her third year of a social and political studies course at Sheffield University. She won her place on the course at Sheffield after taking A levels at night school. The student-staff ratio on her course is 20:1.

"You queue to see your lecturers, queue for the library, and queue to hang your coat up.

"There are just too many people. I suppose I had a naive, idealistic view of what university was going to be like. I was really fired up to learn. But in seminars of up to 30 people it is impossible to explore your ideas and have an academic debate.

"We were told we were one of the first big intakes at Sheffield. In the first year we had a maximum of 15 people per seminar. In the second year the numbers in each group remained the same, but the number of classes were halved. The students grumbled about it among themselves, but no one asked any questions.

"It was in the third year that we really began to feel the effect. The politics department changed the way they organised the subject. They split one course in half and doubled the numbers in seminar groups. It's such an important time, you need more attention from your tutors, not less.

"I failed my 11-plus and went to a secondary modern which didn't do A levels, left school at 16 and then went straight to work.

"I always wanted to go to university. Now I feel I have been let down by the system twice."

Stephen George, professor in politics at Sheffield University, insists the recent expansion in student numbers has not affected quality.

He points out that the final year of degree studies is structured so that every student receives one-on-one supervision during the third term, during which time they work on a dissertation.

"There are higher numbers in Janine's seminars because she has chosen the most popular courses."

We can't give enough time Janet Fraser is a lecturer at Westminster University's school of languages. To help her cope with the stress of her job, she turned to counselling.

"By going to counselling I realised that part of my stress is due to the fact that teaching has changed a great deal since I entered the profession. I finished the sessions after two-and-a-half years last summer.

"I didn't just go to counselling because of the job, there were other things I wanted to work out - but my work was a large part.

"In my school classes have grown by between 50 and 100 per cent. It has meant that we have had to change our teaching methods to keep up. There is less personal interaction, less time to do the thing that really gives you a buzz and fulfilment - the teaching.''

"The students used to have four hours of language tutorials in classes of around 20. Now it is down to three hours a week.

"The students spend more time learning on their own. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it should not be at the expense of teaching time.''

"The responsibility for learning is being placed increasingly on the students. But in order to teach themselves effectively they need a lot of support from their teachers. It's catch 22, we are so busy with administration they cannot get the help they need.''

"Another pressure is that as more and more students pay for their courses, they feel cheated if they fail. They feel they own their degree and they have a right to their qualifications. The number of appeals by students against poor marks are going up.

"In America students take out litigation against their schools. I think we will see that happening in the UK in the not too distant future.

"Lecturers in many institutions feel a tacit pressure to pass their students. Higher education is all about meeting targets. If you lose students, you lose funding."

It wasn't worth continuing Nicky Fleet gave up her degree in biology and health science after three months. She claims overcrowded classrooms and shortage of basic course materials at Luton University, Bedfordshire, made effective study impossible. She was a student in 1993, the first year that Luton gained university status. The student-staff ratio at Luton is 20:1

"It was chaos. The practicals were a nightmare. On my course there were about 150 students, spread between three or four rooms and the lecturers ran from one room to another.

"I had done an access course at Luton, which had been brilliant, before starting my degree. But it was the first year of the degree course and they were not prepared for becoming a university.

"In the first week I went to the library to get some books for the course, only to discover the whole biology section had disappeared - everyone else had taken them out.

"The final straw came when we were doing a practical in biology and genetics. The teacher gave us photocopied sheets with pictures of chromosomes. The idea was to cut them out and stick them on another piece of paper. The photocopies were so bad you could not tell between the chromozones. The situation was quite hopeless.

"I felt if I had stayed on I would not have had a degree of any academic standing. The whole thing was a terrible disappointment."

The deputy vice-chancellor at Luton, Dia John, denies the university is under-resourced and overcrowded.

He says: "This is one student's impression, but she has not got her facts straight. Our spending on books and computer equipment compares well with other univerisites. If there were empty book shelves in the first term of 1993, that was because we had built a whole new learning complex with space for expansion.

"We do not have a high drop-out rate. The Higher Education Funding Council has approved our courses and the science faculty was deemed satisfactory.The vast majority of our students are still with us."

Graphic omitted

Comments