Posted tagged ‘university courses’

The never-ending accumulation of courses? Or no change at all?

September 1, 2015

Recently the University of Stirling is reported to have indicated that ‘consideration is being given’ to ‘the sustainability of religious studies’, one of its courses. Current students are being assured that they will be able to complete their studies, but apparently there are no guarantees beyond that. This news has led to a number of actions, including a petition, and statements of support for the continuation of the course from various prominent people. And of course there is a lively social media campaign. Some of the efforts to stop the closure can be viewed here.

Stirling University itself does not seem to have offered any comment at all – certainly the news section of its website makes no reference to the issue; and that may not be an ideal way of communicating. However, it is not my intention to critique the decision, not least because I know nothing about the university’s reasons, or even intentions. But there is a wider issue here that universities have to grapple with: at a time of limited resources and income, how can any institution develop and innovate if it cannot let go anything it has already accumulated?

Times change, knowledge changes, resources change, fashions change, demand changes – and all of this must produce changes over time in a university’s offering. Too often, however, what this means is that universities offer new courses and programmes while also holding on to everything they have already got, even where demand for some has dropped. Every so often statistics are released showing that specific courses continue with tiny numbers.

Universities are often quite bad at discontinuing things – which realistically they must do; but then again, when they try, they often face howls of protest from within and without the institution. In 2010 Middlesex University decided to close its Philosophy department, a move that led immediately to an outcry and the attendant petitions. How can such steps then be taken? Or if they cannot, is it in practice not acceptable for a university to re-envision what it does?

Stirling University may be right or may be wrong to consider closing religious studies (if indeed it is doing that), and Middlesex University may have been wrong in 2010 (as I suspect it was). And yet, you cannot keep a university alive and well without taking some difficult decisions from time to time. We do not seem to be able to work out how to do that, and do it with the support and consent of the wider community of stakeholders. This is something that we will need to get better at.

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.