Degrading proposals

October 31, 2003

Funding changes reward unpopular courses, say Martin Conway and Andrew Young

The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently proposed changes to the way in which different disciplines will be funded. These changes will have a highly detrimental effect on disciplines such as psychology, engineering, computer science and others. Moreover, because their overall effect is to shift funding from science to the arts and humanities, they will generally lower the quality of undergraduate education in the sciences. In psychology, the net effect will be to "de-science" the subject. This is because, under the new proposals, adequate resources will not be available to teach the subject as the laboratory-based discipline it has become. In the long term, this will irreversibly damage one of our most vibrant sciences, and the only one to exceed its North American counterpart in a recent bibliographic survey of quality and impact of research (ironically, a survey that Hefce itself commissioned and funded).

Why should we worry about psychology? One reason is that it is now the largest science subject. It has been the fastest-growing discipline in the higher education sector for a decade and is the second-most popular undergraduate degree. Furthermore, since more than 75 per cent of psychology undergraduates are women, the discipline accounts for by far the majority of female science undergraduates. It also has an outstanding widening participation record.

Psychology is attractive to students because its content is inherently interesting, often applicable to everyday life and it leads to a wide range of vocational professions. Importantly, it also offers training in literacy, numeracy, communication, research and critical-thinking skills.

Finally, psychology, perhaps more than any other subject, and certainly more than any other science, has been able to respond to the political initiative to expand the undergraduate population, with year-on-year increases in applications and it is now the fastest-growing A level. So why reduce its funding and, as a consequence, degrade its undergraduate delivery as a science subject?

It is difficult to know what the answer to this question is, although the move by Hefce to de-science psychology has a history. Only five years ago there was a similar attempt. The current proposals, like those of five years ago, are not based on any overt policy of manipulating the quality of undergraduate education across disciplines, even though that will be their effect. Instead, as Hefce freely admits, they are based on its "cherished principle" of using historical data showing how individual universities have allocated funds in the past and bringing future expenditure into line with this. The absurdity of this system is that the allocation of funds to different disciplines typically reflects the inability of universities to respond rapidly to the problems caused by the need to switch funding to expanding subjects, such as psychology, while managing changes in contracting subjects in other areas.

Most universities simply take the path of least resistance and compromise by not transferring sufficient income to expanding subjects to cushion the impact of changes in contracting subjects. The effect on psychology has been poor staff-to-student ratios, comparatively poor teaching laboratories and insufficient technical support. Surely it is this that Hefce should be seeking to remedy? Instead, its funding plans merely aggregate the compromises made by individual universities, turning them into an instrument of policy in which the most effective way for a discipline to become better funded is for it to lose as many students as possible.

The proposed changes are potentially disastrous for psychology, and will be deleterious to other sciences as well. In its "consultation" exercise Hefce held a few hurriedly arranged meetings for academics. But what, we wonder, would other users of higher education make of their proposals? What would the students, their parents and future employers think of these reductions and the de-sciencing of our largest science undergraduate degree? We suspect that they, like us, would object very strongly.

Martin Conway and Andy Young are heads of the departments of psychology at Durham and York universities.

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