Expansion without more funding must stop now, says Ann Cotterrell.
Quality is suffering through lack of funding. Lecturers are trying to maintain quality in the face of diminishing resources. It is now time to reject any pretence that quality is unaffected. We must admit that higher education is not as good as it was.
This does not mean that quality has yet fallen to a completely unacceptable level. Almost all of the courses assessed by the Higher Education Funding Councils have been rated as "satisfactory" or "excellent".
There has however been an increase in student numbers without a proportionate increase in funding. Funding per student has fallen by 26 per cent in real terms during the past five years. It is predicted to fall further next year.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has published quality assessments in subject overview reports for eight subjects to date. These provide evidence of deficiencies in resources and a growth in the number of students.
The report for history states: "evidence was found of acute pressure on library stock and study space in a large minority of institutions, particularly some of those drawn from the Polytechnics and Colleges Funding Council sector". For mechanical engineering the subject overview stated that in many institutions, "there are pressures, some severe, on the amount and suitability of accommodation and equipment", while in business and management studies there are "claustrophobic and overcrowded rooms and a lack of soundproofing".
Students at the back of crowded classrooms must increasingly choose whether to focus their ears on the lecturer in front of them or the one teaching the adjacent class behind them. They are also likely to lack essential equipment and library provision. The increase in class sizes has directly affected the quality of the experience for students as well as adding to the stress on staff. The average ratio of students to staff has been rising. HEFCE reports that in the case of many law courses, "provision for small group teaching and tutorial support was stretched to the limit". Similar problems were reported for chemistry where "in some institutions, particularly those from the PCFC sector, increases in numbers have precluded small group sessions" and there are "tutorial" group sizes of 25.
Assessors for chemistry reported that in larger classes "tutors are unable to spend sufficient time with individuals, cannot involve all students in the learning process and are often forced into dominating the session to an unacceptable extent". The applied social work overview noted a relationship between relatively favourable staff:student ratios and "excellent" ratings. Assessors reported that deteriorating ratios were causing cuts to be made in selection interviews, placements visits and tutorials.
The new universities are developing from a lower funding base than the old universities, particularly for research. "Excellent" ratings have been achieved by some courses in new universities. These ratings have been achieved in spite of lower resources, but now resources are declining further. The new universities gained almost one fifth of the "excellent" ratings in the HEFCE teaching quality assessments.
Many in the new universities have prided themselves on the emphasis they attach to teaching, including student guidance and counselling, but they find it hard to compete with institutions with better equipment and facilities and more favourable staff-student ratios. We thus find that in the case of the eight subjects published to date approximately half of the excellent ratings for teaching are awarded to departments that achieved a grade 4 or 5 in the research assessment exercise, even though these departments are less than 14 per cent of the total assessed. This relationship between teaching and research reflects the fact that a high assessment, like a high research rating, can only be achieved through adequate funding.
The teaching quality assessments therefore reflect the resources available to institutions. This decline has been cumulative and its effects are indicated by academic salaries which have fallen by an estimated 30 per cent relative to non-manual average earnings since 1980. In spite of falling relative pay and higher workloads, lecturers have supported the increase in student numbers. Natfhe has supported the rise in student numbers in order to provide opportunities to more of those who can benefit from higher education.
There are still many people, especially those from lower income families and mature students, who could undertake degree-level courses if the opportunity were available. Higher education should expand to include a larger proportion of young people and to provide opportunities for continuing education, degree and postgraduate courses for mature students.
The growth of high quality education would require funding to provide resources and pay staff. Lecturers cannot continue to make up for the shortfall by working harder in deteriorating conditions. We have to recognise that expansion cannot continue without adequate funding. This statement is made with great reluctance.
Natfhe is reviewing funding in preparation for stage two of the Secretary of State's consultation and is discussing the options in regular meetings with the Association of University Teachers and the National Union of Students.
If quality is not to fall to unacceptable levels in Britain, adequate funding must be found so that higher education institutions can start to rebuild staff morale and provide vital resources.
Ann Cotterrell is assistant secretary (higher education) of Natfhe, the college lecturers' union which is hosting a conference on student finances on June .