Don's Diary

August 23, 1996

MONDAY. 10.00am. I am in the teaching committee. Oh dear, how dreary - but at least I'll get free coffee and biscuits.

Five years ago the teaching committee was exactly what it said; a group of teachers meeting together once a term to discuss pertinent issues such as the successes and failures of the teaching programme, timetabling and exam questions. But now, despite the fact that none of us has the relevant training, we spend most of our time on financial issues. It is no longer good enough that our teaching is top quality and our students are well trained. Now our top priority has to be cost effectiveness.

10.30am. Things are going well, we've got to agenda item number 4 already and it looks innocuous enough - student numbers. But this is a matter of survival. In line with the recent Higher Education Funding Council for England directive, our institute has implemented formula funding for individual departments based on teaching and research activities. So each student becomes a unit of resource. To put it bluntly, students mean money. Our department is in desperate need of money and the obvious way to get it is to increase our student load. Since we all agree that we simply can not fit in any more classes, we discuss ways of making more money out of existing one-year masters courses. These are designed on a five-week study unit structure. This is ideal for students from varied backgrounds because they can pick and choose units to make a designer-built course tailored to their own needs. We tax our brains for ingenious ways of encouraging more students to join existing courses.

But now things start to get confusing. As the chairperson patiently explains, even if we attract more students, the department does not necessarily get the money. We have to be careful or we could end up worse off. Students are not just students any more, these days they come in a remarkable number of different varieties. If they are home or European Community students, then we have a government quota for them. As long as we reach our target, our annual budget from the Higher Education Funding Council for England reflects this. But if we do not we are in a no-win situation. Go under the target and we are in danger of having the current budget cut (a phenomenon ominously known as claw-back); and next year's quota will be reduced. If, on the other hand, we go over target, we are not congratulated and given excess funds - the funding council may even penalise us for doing so well.

The coffee pot is recirculated and we silently digest this information while we drink the luke warm liquid hoping for a second wind.

11.30am. We consider the possibility of taking more overseas students. Here, the chairperson tells us, there are no quotas. Every new student adds to the student load. This looks like a good option. But overseas students are like gold dust and all postgraduate teaching institutes are chasing an ever dwindling supply of them. Government policy aimed at making the universities cost effective has caused the fees to become so high that both the World Health Organisation and the British Council, who used to fund bright overseas students to attend our courses, are less able to do so.

12.00 noon. We send out for a sandwich lunch while we knuckle down to discussing the possibility of attracting overseas students for our individual five-week study units. But again we hit a financial complication. Apparently, if we advertise these units as individual short courses then the institute levies an overhead fee of 40 per cent of the cost. And this includes salary costs, so, if the course only attracts a few students, we could end up losing money.

12.30pm. Sandwiches and much-needed fresh coffee arrive and as we tuck in we discuss the next possibility - taking students on an ad hoc basis. But it seems that they must have a label of some sort. "Occasional students" are defined as persons who come to the institute for a period of study but do not register for a degree. This could constitute a study unit, but these students neither count towards the HEFCE quota nor bring money direct to the department.

1.00pm. What about advertising for part-time students, asks one of the few present who is still able to cerebrate clearly. This would certainly tap a different market and attract day-release students. But try as we might, we just can not see how this could work within our existing five-week teaching unit structure. And at this stage in the day we certainly don not want to start changing the basic structure.

1.30pm. We are feeling desperate. Finally we settle on a category called "Visiting Academics". These, although not strictly students, do bring money direct to the department. However, how are we going to get them? If we advertise then the teaching unit automatically becomes designated as a short course and we are back to square one from the financial point of view - Catch 22 revisited!

Three weeks later. Management team retreat. Our new dean tells us of his experience with distance-based learning in the US. Our ears prick up. Surely this is what we need. The same courses marketed worldwide to the students who apply but cannot find the funding to come. And so we are off on a new trail in the inevitable pursuit of money to keep us afloat. We optimistically visualise secretaries sending out packages of notes, manuals, videos, etc, while we are conducting seminars and tutorials in electronic classrooms conveyed by audio-conferencing equipment to electronic students with electronic whiteboards worldwide. And all the time we are in our own department able to get on with our everyday affairs. Is this reality? We shall see.

Dorothy H. Crawford is a professor in clinical sciences, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London.

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