Budget threat to overhaul of university year: Squeeze on expansion and grants

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UNIVERSITY plans for a radical overhaul of the traditional teaching year, with students being taught during the summer recess, may be scuppered by Budget statements which limit expansion and make students pay more themselves for higher education.

Yesterday, a new report called for major changes in higher education: a semester system allowing undergraduates to be taught throughout the year, including the summer holidays; the academic year beginning in September rather than October; and a changed admissions policy with A-level decisions made earlier. Graeme Davies, chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said: 'This will change the map of higher education very significantly.'

The proposals would enable a huge increase in higher education because of the use of staff and buildings in the summer. But the rub is that many students rely on holiday jobs in the summer to be able to afford to attend courses during the rest of the year.

The report called on the Government to reconsider its approach to student support, particularly if students were able to study in the summer period. 'Without adequate consideration of student finances the potential benefits of an extended year may not be realisable,' it said.

But, in the Budget, the Government dismissed expansion plans and said that the student grant, frozen in 1990 when it introduced loans, will be cut by 10 per cent next year while loans will rise accordingly.

Lord Flowers, former vice- chancellor of London University, who chaired the inquiry into the academic year, refused to be drawn on the Budget announcements and said that ministers could not have taken his report into account before they made spending decisions.

He said that universities should have the flexibility to introduce new schemes for learning: 'The more students are expected to pay for their own higher education, the more attractive such flexibility may appear.'

The report favours a two-semester system, both of 15 weeks, the first beginning in early September, and the second before the end of January. Some students could opt for three semesters each year, and conclude a degree in two years. Others, particularly those with domestic responsibilities, could take one semester and spread their higher education over four or more years.

Lord Flowers was asked if his proposals fell into the Government's hands by showing that more students could be educated, without extra expense.

'If it can be done without making the learning experience worse, if it can be done well, I cannot see anything wrong with it,' he said.

But vice-chancellors see the change in the academic year as a long-term strategy, fitting in with the changing pattern of student demand. The first step is likely to be a series of pilot programmes launched by the funding councils, which will iron out teething problems.

There will be no uniformity. Some universities will offer three-semester years, using the summer, others will only offer two semesters, keeping the summer free for staff research. A minority, probably including Oxbridge, will retain the existing academic year.