The quality and reputation of English higher education is at "real risk" because of a lack of funding for teaching, according to an official evaluation.
The amount of contact between students and academic staff has fallen, feedback to students is under pressure and centralised student support services do not always compensate for a breakdown in pastoral support from tutors, says the report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The Sustainability of Learning and Teaching in English Higher Education warns that staff-to-student ratios are "not sustainable" without a threat to quality, and that higher education in England is in danger of losing its "critical distinctive feature" - the personal interaction between students and academics.
In one university department examined for the study, first-year contact time fell from 524 hours in 1990-91 to 320 hours in 2007-08.
It also found that students were "dissatisfied" with library space, and that the state of teaching buildings and learning spaces in English institutions lagged behind those offered by overseas rivals.
If higher education loses its competitive edge, Britain's economy and reputation will suffer, the report says.
It continues: "This is not just a marginal problem that can continue to be accommodated without serious impact on teaching and learning ... It would be dangerous to ignore the pressures.
"Without some change, the quality of the student experience and the reputation and contribution of English higher education will suffer."
Public funding per student fell by 40 per cent in real terms during the 1990s. Returning to "a position of sustainability" will take time, according to the report, which was prepared by a group chaired by Geoffrey Crossick, warden of Goldsmiths, University of London, and supported by JM Consulting.
The report points out that the UK invests a lower proportion of gross domestic product in higher education than many of its competitors.
As a result, universities have been forced to develop "coping strategies", including teaching in bigger groups, using a wider range of staff for teaching and developing online replacements for some lectures.
But, according to the analysis, the sector has become more efficient, with universities improving the quality, range, relevance and flexibility of their courses. There is also greater professionalism and accountability, it adds.
But competition from abroad is stiffening, costs such as staff pay are rising faster than public funding, and it is more expensive to cater for a diverse student population and to increase engagement with employers.
"Students now expect higher standards of accommodation, of services and of academic staff attention," the report says.
"Historical levels of resourcing will not meet the needs and expectations of students, employers and society, or sustain the performance, competitive position and reputation of UK higher education internationally ... The cost of future sustainable teaching is significantly higher than the resources institutions are currently allocating to it."
Universities that took part in the study said they needed 15-20 per cent more money to devote to teaching staff. If reflected across the sector, this would broadly translate into a 5 per cent increase in public funding per student, according to the report. It recommends that funding move towards the levels seen in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.
The report argues that the logic of full economic costing for research, introduced earlier this decade, should also apply to teaching. Options for increasing funding include a one-off rise in core grant, indexing it by the real rate of inflation, or lifting the cap on tuition fees.
But the report acknowledges that the sector "does not yet have a credible and agreed methodology to express the sustainable cost of teaching in a numerical way", and that the economic downturn "makes any major increase in public funding for teaching difficult to achieve in the short term".
- Action that should be taken by the sector
Universities need to assemble better evidence of the cost of teaching, and the sector and its users need to reach "a shared understanding" of the nature of the strains on teaching and learning. Action to raise the esteem of teaching and learning must continue, and there should be better recognition of scholarly activity. Institutions need a more streamlined and tailored approach to teaching, assessment and feedback. Universities should strive to be more efficient and should consider sharing course materials.
- Action that should taken by the Government
The Government should provide long-term stability when it comes to funding and should increase public funding for teaching. It should not impose unfunded requirements on universities, as it did when it asked them to support academies. Core activities should be funded at full economic cost - some government departments are not doing so at present. Regulatory burdens should be minimised, and VAT rules could be changed to encourage universities to share services.
'PRESSURE POINTS' CAUSED BY CASH SQUEEZE
- Accessibility of staff to students
Student numbers have almost tripled in the past two decades, and the authors of the report found evidence that student-to-staff ratios had increased by at least 10-15 per cent in the past 15 years and that contact hours had fallen.
Although they say this is not a factor that is automatically linked to the quality of learning, the reduction in contact "is regarded negatively by students and may impact on the quality and achievements of their learning".
Some universities studied had seen a breakdown in pastoral support from tutors and a reduction in staff-intensive forms of learning such as laboratory sessions.
"The most persistent concern ... is the strain on universities' performance in providing timely, tailored and formative feedback to students," the report says.
Many universities consulted for the report complained about "staff not knowing students by name".
- Student support services
The report notes that today's diverse student body means that students have a wider variety of mental and physical health issues and need learner support and personal and financial help.
Although university support services have expanded and improved, anecdotal evidence compares Britain unfavourably with the US.
The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services said that careers services were "not adequately resourced".
- Physical infrastructure
A 2006 study found that the teaching and learning infrastructure needed investment of between £2 billion and £4 billion to bring it up to date. Several universities consulted said that below-par facilities were having a negative impact on students.
"The pressures for investment are clearly visible at university open days ... there is much less tolerance of poor facilities than in the past," the report says.
According to the Society of College, National and University Libraries, UK university libraries lag behind their US counterparts.
"Only Oxford and Cambridge have library systems anywhere near approaching the major research libraries in the US in terms of the richness of resources," it said.