I confess I find it difficult to make up my mind about the significance of the following. According to figures released last week by the academics’ trade union in the UK, the University and College Union (UCU), if you wanted to go to university in 2006 you would have had 70,052 university programmes from which you could have chosen. If you were beginning your studies in 2011, it was a mere 51,116. In other words, the national menu of university courses had declined over those four years by 27 per cent.
This is not a story about falling student numbers: over the same period more students entered higher education. Also, before any hasty conclusions are drawn, it is not about the student-staff ratio: there was not a corresponding decline in academic staff numbers. It is not even about the breadth of subject provision, at least to the extent that the information released is not about the number individual modules. Rather, it is about how these modules are grouped into programmes leading to the award of a degree. So what the UK had less of in 2011 than in 2006 was award titles.
So at one level it could be said that the headline information provided by the UCU is not as meaningful as might at first appear. Indeed it could be argued that the rationalization of course provision is not a bad thing, particularly in a system that has some reputation for stretching resources by adding new programmes without dropping existing ones. A look at the menu available to students making their choices each year could suggest the conclusion that there are far too many options, and that the differences between some of them are not always clear.
On the other hand, the UCU information does raise some more specific issues, particularly the apparent decline in offerings in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The data also suggest that the changes in provision are not even across the UK, with the biggest decline in England (31 per cent) and the smallest in Scotland (3 per cent): it would be useful to find out why this is so.
Even if the UCU survey on closer analysis does not suggest that there is quite as much of a problem as might at first appear, it does raise important questions about what kind of breadth of subject provision is ideal, and what the impact on this has been of recent (and varying) policy changes across the UK. In other words, it merits further debate.
Similar questions could also be asked about provision elsewhere – for example, what the impact has been in Ireland of the fairly dramatic cuts in higher education funding and staffing. Overall, it is time to have some debate about the ideal shape of a modern system of higher education.