Leader: The hours of reckoning await

March 17, 2006

The issues behind the proposed cuts at Sussex University, as they affect the sciences, are explored elsewhere in this edition.

The plans have revived concerns about national provision of chemistry in particular, as well as raising urgent questions about the effectiveness of the Government's review of vulnerable subjects and about the funding council's support for research.

In the longer term, however, the student protesters' broader demands may be equally significant for higher education as a whole. Even before the university's strategic plan was devised, Sussex students had been campaigning for a minimum of eight hours of tuition a week. It was said that the weekly contact time with academics was only two hours for many undergraduates. Boris Johnson, the Shadow Higher Education Minister, writing on these pages last month about the "raw deal" offered to students, claimed to have met some who were receiving even less. Such low figures may be atypical or even inaccurate, but four hours of contact time is not unusual in the arts and social sciences, particularly in research universities.

In the era of top-up fees, students (and their parents) are bound to demand more. Academics will insist that higher education is about independent learning as well as tuition but, particularly if undergraduates are poorly prepared for study at this level, the clamour for more direction is surely inevitable. And then the question arises of who, in an overstretched academic workforce, will provide the extra hours.

The unpopular image of students as customers is already threatening to play a part in the current pay dispute. The National Union of Students is trying to hold the line in supporting the academic unions, but the reality is different in many institutions. Some local student unions are offering to support members who take legal action to ensure that their graduation, or progress through a course, is not delayed. Whatever their chances of success, aggrieved individuals may want to assert their rights even without such support.

The two potential battlegrounds are, of course, linked. Extra tuition costs money, especially if it means recruiting additional staff, but a big pay settlement is more likely to mean further cuts in staff numbers. The time bomb of student contact hours may not go off in most universities until after the deadline for submissions to the 2008 research assessment exercise, when vice-chancellors may be happy to redeploy their resources.

But go off it will, especially in "leading" universities, which will be forcibly reminded that their mission includes teaching as well as research.

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