Farthing's two penn'orth on 'low-cost' policy

The new head of the 1994 Group has marked the start of his tenure with an outspoken attack on the coalition's higher education policy, arguing that it "lacks ambition".

November 17, 2011

In his first speech as chairman of the group of 19 smaller research-intensive universities, Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, said the government's plans were too heavily focused on encouraging providers of low-cost degrees.

He also criticised the way students were being cast as consumers following the decision to raise the tuition-fee cap to £9,000 next year.

"Are we saying that the student experience offered by UK universities can be summed up by data on things like contact hours and salary expectations? I sincerely hope not," he said at the Enhancing the Student Experience conference in London on 15 November.

"Universities are so much more than warehouses that sell off-the-shelf qualifications, and students are more than consumers purchasing degree certificates. We need to talk about the student experience less in terms of transactions and more in terms of relationships.

"Universities are communities where people come together to create and share knowledge."

He also raised concerns about the measures to introduce competition for student places.

"We are faced with a situation where universities that offer excellent teaching and facilities...[and experience] more demand than any others will have their places reduced," he said. "Meanwhile, [student] numbers will move to institutions pledging to make lower-than-average investments in the quality of their experience.

"This is a long way away from a system that empowers students to choose the institution that best meets their expectations."

Professor Farthing reserved criticism for the tightening of student-visa controls and the lack of finance for postgraduate students.

The latter issue was a particular concern, he said, because it "risks cutting off the pipeline of future researchers and academic staff for our UK universities".

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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