Academics say the resources squeeze is forcing alarming compromises. Phil Baty reports on the results of an exclusive poll
On the face of it, the statement by Les Ebdon, Luton University's vice-chancellor, to his academic board detailed the blindingly obvious.
"The board was reminded that weak student retention rates would have a direct impact on staffing budgets," recorded the minutes of the meeting in June.
It is the basic logic of university finances: universities receive public funds based on student numbers; if students drop out, funding councils claw back their money; and clawbacks mean lower university budgets and less money for teaching facilities and staffing.
Some academic staff, however, believe the implications of Professor Ebdon's comments are chilling. One, who asked not to be named, said: "This seems to be a pretty extraordinary message to send out to staff: either you keep students in the system or your job goes. Doesn't that grossly prejudice standards?"
Professor Ebdon denies this accusation: "The entire higher education sector faces financial challenges - according to Universities UK estimates, about £10 billion underfunding. That places pressure on resources and staff here at Luton... But under no circumstances would we compromise our academic standards - our pass-fail grade has not, and will not, change."
A downward spiral
However the minute is interpreted, one thing is irrefutable. Professor Ebdon's comments highlight the vicious circle many believe is irrevocably damaging academic standards in new universities struggling for financial stability. It is a cycle of declining finances and academic quality: those universities with the fewest resources are the least popular, so they are forced to pick up the least qualified students. Such students cost more to support through higher level study and drain the coffers further if they drop out. With dropout rates above 25 per cent at 13 universities, including Luton, some say it is all but inevitable that standards will slip, almost as a prerequisite for financial security.
The message of The Times Higher 's poll is clear: academics believe standards are being forced down. And the survey provides the first evidence that academics are compromising or, worse, being forced to compromise their professional academic judgement to an alarming extent.
The big squeeze
Some 84 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: "The squeeze on resources for universities is 'having an adverse effect on academic standards'." Half said they "strongly agreed".
Since 1989, universities have seen resources per student fall by 37 per cent. The student-to-staff ratio now stands at 23:1.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "Funding is already increasing by £2 billion over the next three years, and variable fees will bring an additional and independent source of income."
But with the lion's share of future funding promised for the major research universities, and the market set to intensify with top-up fees, the future for teaching universities looks grim.
The number of university places already outstrips the supply of well-qualified school-leavers. In 2003-04, 246,726 students left English schools and colleges with two or more A-level passes. This autumn, universities accepted 5,923 English applicants on full-time degree and HND courses - meeting the gap largely through mature students and those with non-traditional qualifications.
The sector is also taking on thousands of overseas students, who place different pressures on standards with divergent learning cultures and, often, language problems. And as the drive to get half of all people under 30 into higher education by the end of the decade continues, universities outside the oversubscribed elite will have to increasingly rely on students with more limited preparation for higher level study.
Fallout of financial crisis
Although Luton has often unfairly come under the media spotlight, it epitomises the problems faced by many universities at the sharp end of a highly competitive struggle to fill places. Documents obtained by The Times Higher revealed the seriousness of the university's recent financial problems.
In September 2003, Sir Howard Newby, the Higher Education Funding Council for England chief executive, visited Luton. Governing body minutes show that Sir Howard "indicated some considerable nervousness concerning the financial strength of the institution". Professor Ebdon said the funding council had now "expressed its full confidence in Luton and its development plan". But the legacy continues to bite.
Lecturers' union Natfhe says financial cuts at Luton have led to the loss of 250 staff in restructuring exercises since 1997. This has compromised its ability to provide expertise in some subjects, quality watchdogs have concluded.
In April, the governors were told that after a private inspection of law courses, the Quality Assurance Agency had expressed concern about the "demands being made of academic staff, whom it regarded as stretched to the limit to deliver the range of subjects required". In June, the academic board heard that an inspection of nursing courses had raised similar concerns.
Lower entry standards
The Times Higher poll found that almost three quarters of respondents believe that their university has been forced to accept students who "are not capable of benefiting" from university study.
And they have been forced to keep them in the system when they have failed to make adequate progress - 48 per cent of academics agreed with the statement: "I have felt obliged to pass a student whose performance did not really merit a pass." Meanwhile, 42 per cent said "decisions to fail students' work have been overruled at higher levels in the institution".
The conviction that entry standards are plummeting is supported elsewhere.
A study of first-year electronics students at York University in August, for example, found that average scores on a standard freshers' week test fell from 78 per cent in 1985 to 42 per cent in 2000. At Sussex University, maths tutor James Hirschfeld reported that up to a quarter of freshers needed extra maths classes. And a survey by the Tory Party in July found that half of all university heads feared some of their students lacked the basic skills needed to take a degree.
At Luton, a 2002 Business School report obtained by The Times Higher , says:
"Over the past five years, numbers of... students have changed little in total, but their level of entry qualification has declined."
This has put pressure on Luton to increase its intake of overseas students, who have become a vital financial lifeline but bring their own problems.
The report notes: "The proportion of students who do not have English as a first language has markedly increased... a major issue for the school is the increasing number of business and management students (mostly but not entirely from overseas) who appear to face difficulties with academic English."
A Luton spokesperson said most business schools had similar problems at the time, and that it had increased the number of home students and had improved support for students since.
But perhaps one of the most alarming concerns is that academics, at Luton and elsewhere, are trapped in a vicious circle, unable to question falling standards. Roger Kline, head of Natfhe's universities department, said:
"When lecturers raise concerns about quality - whether it be plagiarism or standards more generally - they don't always feel supported, and we have heard cases where this was dismissed as 'whingeing'. Yet in the brave new world of the market, we can expect more academics to be put under pressure by student 'consumers' exerting their 'rights'."
Paul Ramsden, chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, said: "These results reflect big changes that are happening in higher education. It's fast becoming a universal system, so there's no longer a single student experience. As a result, academics are under more pressure. They need more support."
Next week: the grade inflation phenomenon that has prompted an explosion in the number of top degree classifications awarded