Leader: Something has got to give

The government has told students to expect more, while it has given universities less. This could be unpleasant for all

February 16, 2012

Students, last summer's White Paper informed us, are now "at the heart of the system". They have to be - they are being asked to take on a debt burden that will for many last the best part of a lifetime (much to the Treasury's chagrin). In truth it is shameful that students were ever thought to be anything other than at the heart of what universities do.

Yet the government's strategy of selling the tuition-fee hike with a promise that students would benefit went almost unchallenged by vice-chancellors. In their desperation to secure extra fee income to replace lost teaching grant, most appeared to accept the suggestion that there was a huge problem with their attitude to students that needed fixing. The question now is what the sector intends to do about it.

Sir Alan Langlands, head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was clear and forceful in his support for students at a recent policy seminar in Westminster. The White Paper's title, he said, was something that universities must "live and breathe" because "to do anything else would be a betrayal". But will universities be able to heed his entreaty as they grapple with the reforms the government has introduced?

Graham Gibbs, former director of the Oxford Learning Institute and one of the country's most respected experts in teaching and learning, has grave concerns. Writing in Times Higher Education, he says that universities are axeing courses (some by the raft load), resulting in a smaller number of programmes with larger numbers of students. This might bring economies of scale, but is not in the interests of the student.

At the same time, the cost of shedding lecturers means that few institutions will be able to instantly find more money to support teaching on the larger courses. The result, Professor Gibbs fears, will be overcrowded lectures, bigger seminar groups and much less of the "close contact" so vital to learning.

And all the while, volatile student demand will make institutions doubly wary of recruiting full-time staff, which could lead to more use of temporary lecturers and a further decline in the quality of teaching.

All this matters a great deal. The first cohort of students to pay fees of up to £9,000 are already being asked to take a huge leap of faith in investing in a university education. The feeling that they have been stitched up is likely to be exacerbated by the fact that they are the first to pay fees of such a high level. Imagine lying on a sunbed on holiday and learning that you paid three times as much as the person next to you. Infuriating is not the word.

Will next year's students incessantly compare what they receive - in particular the teaching - with that enjoyed by the cohort in the year ahead? And if they do, will they find it to be better or worse?

Sir Alan argued that universities must not value students simply for what they can get out of them - if they did, students would value universities by the same measure. Such a relationship, he said, "would be damaging to the soul of higher education and it's not what students want".

Larger classes, unstable course structures and temporary lecturers are not what students want, either. Such things could stress students - and another shock to the heart of the system is the last thing universities need right now.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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