Arts and humanities offer Hobson's choice

Budget-driven cuts mean language studies are now unavailable in some regions. Simon Baker reports

February 23, 2012

Credit: Alamy
Shrinking feeling: scholars say closing courses is quickly done, but rebuilding the sector's diversity of offerings is arduous

The number of different undergraduate degree courses being offered in UK universities has dropped by more than a quarter in the past six years - with one English region seeing a fall of almost half, according to new research.

Programmes in single subjects have also dropped significantly over the period, with some disciplines such as German and French studies not available at all in some areas of the country, according to the study by the University and College Union.

The report, Choice Cuts: How Choice Has Declined in Higher Education, took an overview of provision in the sector from 2006 to 2012 before looking at a specific sample of "principal" subject courses such as single-honours degrees.

It found that overall, the number of full-time undergraduate courses across the UK had dropped by per cent over the period, with those in England falling by 31 per cent. The decline in England was far greater than in Scotland, which experienced a dip of only 3 per cent.

Some of the variations across different regions were sizeable, with six of England's nine regions seeing a cut in overall provision of at least a quarter.

The drop in the South West was 47 per cent, in eastern England 41 per cent and in the North West 40 per cent. However, the East Midlands saw a fall of just 1.4 per cent.

In the sample of single-subject degrees considered, there was a fall in provision of 14 per cent across all parts of the UK over the six years, although there was a slight increase in 2012-13.

England followed the average national trend, but Wales saw falls in principal courses of almost a quarter.

The balance between different subject areas in the sample had not changed much over the six years, although science, technology, engineering and maths subjects make up a bigger proportion of courses in Scotland (52 per cent), Northern Ireland (51 per cent) and Wales (47 per cent) than in England (44 per cent).

Some of the most startling changes were seen in arts and humanities provision for single subjects such as French and German studies.

Among the sampled courses, German studies, as a single subject, was no longer available in eastern England, the North East and Northern Ireland, while French studies was not on offer in eastern England and the North East.

Academics providing a commentary alongside the report warned that such a restriction in the choice offered to students risked harming higher education generally.

James Ladyman, head of the philosophy department at the University of Bristol, said he was concerned that the shift in funding towards student fees meant that institutions would focus on courses delivering the highest financial return.

"It is very easy to undermine capacity quickly but takes years to rebuild these knowledge bases," he said.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "This report shows that while government rhetoric is all about the student as consumer, the curriculum has actually narrowed massively."

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