Changed utterly: cuts expected to transform the teaching landscape

Lecturers fear growing 'consumer' demands but hope for more student zeal, writes Rebecca Attwood

October 28, 2010

Ending public funding for teaching in "low-cost" disciplines such as the arts, humanities and social sciences would lead to a shift in the student-tutor relationship, academics believe.

As the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review made it clear that a far greater burden of funding courses is to be placed on graduates, lecturers predicted increased expectations from students but also higher levels of engagement in their studies.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, said the shift towards the private funding of teaching was likely to have a "paradoxical effect" on the relationship between students and academics.

"On the positive side it will encourage students to take their studies more seriously and become more focused in their work.

"On the negative side it is likely to intensify the tendency to regard studying as a form of consumption and to regard the relationship between student and staff as akin to one between customer and service provider," Professor Furedi said.

However, he added, "if teachers hold their ground and refuse to embrace the role of service providers...they can cultivate an intellectual partnership with their students."

Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University, agreed that students would worry more about what they were getting for their money.

He also predicted an acceleration of the trend towards parents becoming more involved in student issues.

"If much higher fees only plug the funding gaps, then it may put a strain on some universities to demonstrate how students might get more for their money when these higher costs for students may only help some institutions stand still," Dr Brooks cautioned.

"Until relatively recently, all subjects received full funding for their teaching. Now most subjects will receive nothing at all, and we are encouraged to begin saving for our children's education from an early stage. My worry is that this change will be quite sudden and those who will be affected will not have much time to become prepared."

Ben Knights, director of the Higher Education Academy's English Subject Centre, said higher expectations from students were "not a bad thing at all".

But he questioned the assertion that student choice would improve the quality of the education they receive.

"The government - David Willetts and before that Lord Mandelson - has invested an awful lot in the notion that if better information is provided for students they will then make rational decisions.

"That is a very old, liberal with a small 'l' idea about the 'perfect consumer' - that people will take rational decisions on the basis of all the evidence available. They don't," Professor Knights said.

He added that while much remained uncertain, he expected that the survival of humanities subjects would depend "enormously" on individual institutions' missions, as well as their future funding.

"One thing that could happen is that humanities subjects emigrate further and further 'up the food chain', leading a thriving existence in high-prestige research institutions but getting squeezed out in smaller, more regional and less well-funded institutions," he observed.

Doing the maths: 'low-cost' arts are not cheap, and will become more costly, says rector

Art and design are not low-cost subjects to teach, the head of the country's biggest arts university has argued.

Nigel Carrington, rector of the University of the Arts London, said his institution would have to charge tuition fees "well in excess" of the £6,000 "soft cap" proposed by the Browne Review if public funding for arts, humanities and social sciences courses is removed.

"If the proposal to remove statutory funding for all non-priority subjects currently in Higher Education Funding Council for England price groups C and D does become a reality, then institutions like University of the Arts London, which specialise in art and design, will see virtually all of their teaching funding from Hefce removed to be replaced by higher student fees," he said.

"For 2010-11, the teaching funding we are receiving from Hefce is just under £52 million. In order to recoup the current level of funding we generate per full-time equivalent student, the university would have to set fees well in excess of the proposed £6,000 'soft cap' outlined in the Browne report. Specialist art and design is a high-cost subject to deliver."

Recent Hefce data on the cost of teaching different subjects show that the average subject-related costs of teaching design and creative arts students was more than £7,700 a year, he said.

Mr Carrington also argued that the now-commonplace mantra that science-based subjects are more critical than others to the UK economy and therefore more worthy of government investment was "not grounded on empirical evidence".

"One of the biggest and most successful sectors of the economy in recent years has been the creative industries, which contribute almost as much to our gross domestic product as the financial sector, employ an estimated 2 million people and are still growing," he said.

"The distinction between science and the creative arts is a false one. Both are equally deserving of public investment," he said.

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