University adds six weeks to teaching year to offset fee rise

With tuition costs set to rocket, one college hopes to boost recruits by giving them more for their cash
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The Independent Online

University students will be asked to work harder and longer as part of a radical charter to be introduced next year to coincide with the rise in tuition fees.

London Metropolitan University is to introduce a 30-week teaching year next September when its fees rise to £6,800 a year – in the belief that potential recruits will want more for their money. Professor Malcolm Gillies, the university's vice-chancellor, argues that the extra teaching could give them an edge in the jobs market.

In an interview with The Independent, he said: "At a time when between 100 and 200 people are competing for a job, employers want someone with the necessary personal skills and industrial experience to start a job from day one – not someone they have to train.

"We think we will be creating something that will have an academic and educational credibility with the 30-week teaching year. It won't just be preparation for the degree they are taking."

Most British universities have a 24-week teaching year, whereas the continental model is closer to 30 weeks. Professor Gillies admits that it is far from certain that students will want to work harder for a more meaningful degree. However, he is convinced that the extra support that can be given over 30 weeks could help cut drop-out rates among students who would otherwise lose engagement with their courses.

Some universities have talked about offering two-year degrees to save students money, but Professor Gillies is not convinced this is the way forward for LMU. He believes students will want a guaranteed minimum of teaching hours, seminars and one-to-one tuition if they are paying higher fees and will welcome the increase in teaching weeks.

For years, LMU has had one of the highest drop-out rates in the country, partly because it take a large proportion of disadvantaged students who have had less preparation for university life. The university deliberately fixed its fees at a lower rate than most so as not to saddle such students with huge debts. Charges range from £4,500 to £9,000 depending on the course (the university's architecture course is among the most prestigious in the country).

Its average fee of £6,800 a year means it is eligible to qualify for funding for extra students as the Government has set aside 15,000 places next year for universities that charge less than £7,500 on average. As a result, some universities are now considering lowering the fees they planned to charge. Professor Gillies believes that LMU's decision will have given it a head start when it applies for such funding.

He is concerned, though, that the number of students, particularly post-graduate, will dry up after 2015.

"After accruing, say, £36,000 in debt are they likely to want to go on to further study?" he says. "One suspects they'll want to go out and earn a reasonable salary for a few years. We're very worried about the effect of that on universities."

He has just launched a review of the university's postgraduate provision. It follows this year's review of undergraduate courses, which revealed that the number of courses had fallen from more than 500 to 160, and that 200 teaching and support jobs had been lost.

The university is also selling off some of its 18 sites and plans to reduce the number to 11 or 12 eventually.