Gillies defends London Met course cuts

The vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University has defended his decision to cut the number of courses at his institution by two-thirds, and set out lessons for other universities that embark on similar overhauls.

April 4, 2012

Speaking at the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators in Manchester, Malcolm Gillies said that as society was unwilling to increase its funding of higher education, the challenge was to provide “a decent education for a decent price”.

In April last year it was announced that the number of undergraduate courses at London Met would shrink from 557 to 160. Degree courses cut included those in history, philosophy and the performing arts.

The University and College Union claimed the decision would deprive students from poor backgrounds of the chance to study the humanities.

But Professor Gillies told the AUA conference on 3 April that having 400 to 500 courses “led to administrative breakdown” and he stressed the need for a “defensible portfolio perimeter” that minimised administration costs.

He said universities needed to ask of their portfolios: “How many pence in the pound goes to the front-line activities?”

Professor Gillies advised that when universities create a new course, they should “establish tight time-lines” for assessing success or failure.

Academics’ creativity in designing new courses was second only to hedge-fund managers’ ability to design new financial products, said Professor Gillies.

Before embarking on major course rationalisation programmes, universities should work out their communications strategy, he said, although vice-chancellors should prepare to be “toasted and roasted” in hostile news stories.

61 per cent of the media coverage that London Met received over its course closures and relatively low average tuition fee of £6,850 was neutral, with the rest split between negative and positive, he said.

However, the most commonly occurring words in the press coverage had been “cuts”, “axe”, and “slashed”, he added.

London Met has embarked on a marketing campaign featuring a student holding aloft a banner that reads “affordable quality education”.

Professor Gillies said the image had a “socialist realist tinge”, although earlier designs had been rejected because of a resemblance to Mao Zedong, the leader of the Chinese revolution.

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