Hefce focus on lecture costs

October 21, 2005

A clearer picture of how much it costs universities to teach each subject will be at the heart of a revamp of the £4 billion teaching funding system, it emerged this week.

The initiative, which includes changes to the way teaching funds are allocated in a bid to create "stability, predictability and transparency", comes in a consultation paper from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Central to the proposals is a move towards "a cost-informed method" that would consider more closely how much is spent on teaching different disciplines.

As well as general cost information, the new method will take account of institutions where teaching is "high cost", the cost of teaching part-time students and efforts to widen participation across the social classes.

This information will be used to review the four existing "price bands"

that Hefce uses to allocate funds to clinical subjects such as medicine, lab-based sciences and engineering, subjects with a studio or fieldwork element and "all other subjects", typically the arts.

But the consultation says: "Until more robust cost information is available, we intend to maintain the price groups at their current weightings."

Sean Mackney, head of teaching and learning at Hefce, said: "We see a great advantage in having much better cost information to inform decisions within institutions and the way we allocate our funds to the sector.

"We don't anticipate any great changes in the level of funding institutions receive - this is about creating a model of how to give money out that will be fit for purpose over the next ten years."

A key issue behind the proposed changes is the introduction of variable fees next summer.

The consultation paper notes that subjects that are cheaper to teach such as the arts will have a higher proportion of costs covered by student contributions through fees than "expensive" subjects such as medicine. The consultation paper asks for comment on what assumptions the funding council should make about tuition fees in the new funding model.

"If we were to make no fee assumption, we would fail to take account of the fact that lower cost subjects could have a greater proportion of their costs met by fee income than higher cost subjects," the paper says.

"This would result in providing a disproportionate amount of public funding for lower cost subjects as opposed to higher cost subjects... This could create perverse incentives to recruit students in lower cost areas, and would result in high-cost provision not being appropriately funded. This would neither be in the public interest nor maintain stability."

But Hefce stresses that no account will be taken of the relative contribution fee income will make to the cost of teaching different subjects before 2009, when MPs will decide whether to lift the £3,000 cap on fees.

Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group of research universities, said: "We'll be looking for transparency and simplicity in any system that is produced, and that means not too many interventions and special initiatives and things like that."

Hefce also proposes to reform the system of "premium payments" - the extra elements of the current teaching funding method that are used to cover the extra costs of widening participation or teaching part-time students.

The paper rules out a special funding system to protect maths and sciences courses seen to be at risk of closure.

"We do not intend to introduce different weightings for strategic and vulnerable subjects in the short term, but will consider their costs as part of the work to develop a national framework for the costing of teaching," the document says.

The consultation period runs until January 13.

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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