Posted tagged ‘University and College Union’

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.