Cambridge dons fear that their university's reputation is under threat with the emergence of questions about its mission and the future of minority subjects.
Cutting undergraduate numbers, narrowing the range of courses and reducing face-to-face tutorials are among the subjects up for discussion in a paper circulating internally.
The university's planning and resources committee has said that reforms must be considered in the face of "changing societal and financial factors".
"It has to be asked whether the combination of subject breadth and unrestrained steady growth in student numbers is affordable given the recent downward pressure on the unit of resource for teaching by the university," says a consultation document.
In the first examination of Cambridge's strategic direction for seven years, the paper suggests that the university "reorientate" its mission for the next decade.
But academics say the paper calls into question the very purpose of higher education. "The big question is whether money should trump everything," said Alex Oliver, director of graduate studies in the school of philosophy.
Central to the discussions is the rationalisation of subjects. The committee asks: "Is it realistic in resource terms to maintain the existing range of courses, breadth and balance of subject matter, and range and levels of study? There are past examples of the university taking decisions to discontinue particular subjects."
The committee acknowledges the huge implications of the question. "It might be said that the three main education principles of a traditional university are a broad range of subjects, leading to all levels of qualification, available to all who can benefit," says the consultation paper.
Dons believe the document will create massive debate and face strong protest from minority subject teachers. Dr Oliver, whose department has 12 academic staff, said: "If you do your sums, I'm sure the engineers are on better ground than the philosophers to point to the money they bring in, but how much should the economics of the university dictate? I imagine this will cause a bit of a stir."
Richard Rex, lecturer in late medieval ecclesiastical history in the faculty of divinity, said that Cambridge should continue to provide for minority subjects.
"We'd certainly want to ensure that areas of traditional strength such as theology and oriental studies are maintained, and I'd put my weight behind continuing these," he said. "You don't get anywhere by abandoning traditional areas of strength."
Professor Rex said that he had not seen the document, but was confident that divinity had a strong future at Cambridge, following significant investment.
The document labels student numbers a major issue. It asks: "If the relatively small size of a college is essential to the quality of education and welfareI can that characteristic be sustained if the university continues to grow in terms of student numbers?" The document largely dismisses the unpopular idea of creating a new college and asks: "Should growth in undergraduate numbers be limited?" The paper talks about rationalising courses by award as well as by subject, acknowledging that the number of taught MPhil courses has "mushroomed", inviting criticism that there is "overlap and a possible fall in quality".
It raises questions about face-to-face tutorials: "How will it be possible for the university and the colleges to sustain the quality and extent of relatively intensive teaching methods?" And it asks about technology's impact: "Is the development of IT-based teaching methods inescapable? Should technology-oriented teaching methods (computer-assisted learning, internet delivery of coursework) be taken further?
Tim Mead, registrary at Cambridge, said: "The direction and scope of research, how students learn and where we stand on part-time degrees and distance learning are just some of the many issues we need to consider."
Consultation will end in December, and a mission proposal will be published next spring.
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