Posted tagged ‘UCU’

Not enough choice?

February 28, 2012

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.

Turmoil in Britain

December 10, 2010

In some ways it is gratifying that higher education is still capable of causing such excitement as we are now witnessing in the UK, and indeed in Ireland. But it has to be asked where all this is leading.

Let me not focus on the events of yesterday in London – the vote in the House of Commons, and the accompanying protests and incidents on the streets of the city. Let me turn instead to the information published earlier in the week by UCU (the University and College Union). In order, I imagine, to help make their point about the impact of under-funding and the increase in tuition fees, the union published a wholly different type of league table of ‘universities at risk’. According to the document itself, this is what it is intended to show:

‘The University and College Union (UCU) has analysed the government’s university funding proposals and discovered which institutions are most at risk of impact from the proposals. Universities at risk not only examines which institutions are most at risk, but also looks at how local economies will be affected by the government’s radical proposals.’

The union used research done by a team at Stratchclyde University for this purpose, which aims not just to create a table of universities deemed to be in danger of collapse, but also to show how such a collapse would affect the local economy. By way of illustration they say:

‘The impact on the local community of a failure by Sheffield Hallam to recoup the lost income would be substantial. Every £1m in income lost by Sheffield Hallam would lead to a combined loss to the regional economy of £2m, according to the regional multiplier formula created by the Strathclyde researchers in their work on the economic impact of higher education.’

I can’t quite help wondering whether Sheffield Hallam, or its UCU members on the staff, welcome that particular example, but you get the point. Funding cuts have an onward impact beyond the universities.

Having then explained the methodology underpinning their league table, the union produce a list of at risk institutions in four categories: (1) very high level of impact from the Browne proposals (i.e. universities at ‘very high’ risk of institutional failure); (2) ‘high level’ of risk; and (3) ‘high medium’ level of risk. This is a league table you don’t want to be in.

There are four universities listed as being subject to ‘very high’ risk: Bishop Grosseteste University College, Lincoln; Edge Hill University; Newman University College; Norwich University College of the Arts. These are not perhaps household names (though I know the first very well, as it was a linked college of Hull University when I was there). However, the ‘high risk’ list contains 23 universities, including some prominent regional universities. The ‘high medium’ risk list contains 22 names, which interestingly includes the Open University.

Is this table a good idea? The immediate risks inherent in such an approach became obvious on Wednesday evening when UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt was backed into a corner on television and had to deal with the persistent questioning of the interviewer why the ‘at risk’ universities, as they were clearly not satisfying demand, should not just all be closed. Something tells me that the institutions listed there may not be all that happy about the exercise, either. The list could take on the character of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I have little doubt that a small number of English universities are at risk, but I doubt that 49 of them are. There is a possibility right now that the collective scaremongering of parts of the sector will have a highly counterproductive effect. I also have serious reservations about the wisdom of actually naming the allegedly at risk institutions. After all, the government isn’t likely to change course in a hurry, and so the immediate impact of the table is to undermine the institutions named in it, potentially for example affecting their creditworthiness and their ability to raise funds or donations.

As it happens, the more I consider the fine print of the Browne proposals, the more sceptical I am becoming about whether they are appropriate. I still favour realistic tuition fees – there really is no alternative – but the asset stripping of the humanities is, in my view, crazy. But this needs to be debated calmly and rationally. Putting out loud cries about university failures (even if correct) will not help one bit; and neither, for that matter, will violence in central London. Those involved in these campaigns should not just act, they also need to think.

An academic assessment of protest?

November 13, 2010

Following the recent violent actions on the margins of major student protest marches in both Dublin and London, the official student bodies in both cases denounced these actions by the small number of protesters who had taken part. But these denunciations have in turn been sharply criticised by representatives of local lecturers’ unions. In the relation the Dublin events, a letter was sent by members of the Maynooth branch committee of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) to the President of the university’s Student Union. The key passage in the letter is the following:

‘Rather than criticise the actions of those who attacked the student demonstrators, the President of USI chose instead to condemn those of his own members who had attempted to occupy the Department of Finance. In our view, his comments on Wednesday last represent a shameful betrayal of those whom he was elected to serve and represent.’

In relation to the protest and violent occupation of the Conservative Party offices in London, the President and Secretary of the University and College Union branch at Goldsmiths College London issued a statement that contains the following:

‘We also wish to condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ. The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation that will follow if tuition fees are increased and if massive reductions in HE funding are implemented.’

I have no idea of course whether these statements reflect wider views amongst academics in the universities concerned, but in any case they will hugely alienate those whose support will be needed by students and staff who are concerned about government policies and want to express their concerns. The actions by a minority of student protestors have subverted the agenda of the demonstrations, so that what is now being discussed is not the issues but the violence, and for some academics to attempt to reinforce that perspective is plainly stupid. If they want to express solidarity, it should be with the majority of the student protestors, not the violent minority.

Freeing the universities? Or killing them?

October 14, 2010

It seems likely that the discussion about the real effect of the Browne proposals for higher education in England (Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education) will go on for a while, and will probably get another shot in the arm when the UK government reveals its spending plans shortly. The latter is important because the impact of the recommendations, if implemented, will depend to a large extent on what level of public funding may still be available. At the moment speculation ranges from the idea that current levels of investment will continue and fees will be additional income for institutions, to the more or less complete withdrawal of public subsidy. Browne himself assumes that a fee income of £7,000 per student will represent the status quo, which would suggest a fairly dramatic reduction of public funding.

Reactions to the proposals have, as would be expected, varied depending on who is speaking. The Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has welcomed the report, saying that the recommendations will ‘help to support a sustainable, high-quality university system open to students from all backgrounds’. On the other hand the University and College Union has stated that they are the ‘final nail in the coffin for affordable higher education’. The response of Universities UK is measured, and on the whole positive. The journal Times Higher Education has today published an editorial in which it suggests a somewhat apocalyptic vision:

‘UK higher education is in for a tumultuous and brutal time that could include mergers, aggressive takeovers, private-sector competition, university break-ups and failing institutions. And with sweeping cuts ahead, the sector may find it has no alternative but to accept these huge structural – and philosophical – changes.’

What the reality will be may be too early to say. But it is also clear that while the report addresses England only, other parts of these islands, including Scotland and Ireland, will be fundamentally affected. In Ireland it must be likely that the Browne report will influence thinking on higher education funding in the context of the Hunt report (always assuming that this ever sees the light of day). In Scotland the question must be how public funding of higher education can be sustained at manageable levels in the absence of fees and in the light of dramatic cuts in England. In that context it is remarkable that Sir Andrew Cubie, who ten years ago presided over a report that led to the abolition of tuition fees in Scotland, is now arguing that Scottish graduates ‘should make a contribution’.

One way or another, there are interesting times ahead.