UUK has failed to stop decline of teaching

July 1, 2010

In last week's Letters pages, Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, attacked the editor of Times Higher Education for accusing UUK of "hysteria and hyperbole" over the issue of impending cuts ("Stop with the gloom and doom", Leader, 17 June).

UUK's case would be more credible if it were clear what it is defending and why. If it is teaching, where was UUK when its member universities progressively worsened the staff-to-student ratio by 50 per cent while doubling or even trebling the size of seminar groups?

Clearly, little, if any, of New Labour's largesse since 2000 or higher tuition fees in more recent years - to say nothing of the fees paid by international students - has gone anywhere near improving the "student experience" for undergraduates. Instead, much has been wasted on ever-expanding human resources/public relations/development offices - the admin bunker, not the chalk face.

Universities and science minister David Willetts is correct in proposing that if Lord Browne recommends tuition-fee hikes that manage to get through Parliament, universities should get the extra dosh only if they can show it will reach the lecture/seminar room.

The greatest challenge on this score will face the Russell Group institutions that have shamefully short-changed undergraduate teaching while pursuing the cash and kudos of research and the fee income of the taught-master's market: indeed, they have done so to such an extent that in many subjects no teaching at all occurs in the third term of each undergraduate year.

Perhaps it is time for two-year degrees ("Two years better than three", News, 24 June), and for UUK and the Quality Assurance Agency to notice the grim reality of undergraduate education in 2010.

David Palfreyman, Director, Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, New College, Oxford.

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