Sunderland and SOAS cuts expose market dangers, say scholars

Academics claim that, as well as impoverishing some institutions, removal of number controls has led to overcrowding at other institutions

January 24, 2020
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Moves by the University of Sunderland to close its history, politics and languages courses as part of a shift to a “career-focused” curriculum and by SOAS University of London to curtail research leave because of the “challenging financial environment” have exposed the dangers of England’s market-driven higher education system, academics said.

Sunderland said earlier this month that its governors had agreed that all subjects it taught should be “educationally and financially sustainable” and “align with a particular employment sector”.

As a result, it said, teaching and research would cease in modern foreign languages, history and politics. No students had been recruited to study languages this year, while history attracted only 14, with a further 15 on a combined politics and history degree. Thirty-four staff will be affected by Sunderland’s changes.

John Mowbray, chair of Sunderland’s governors, said that the courses were not “of a size and scale to be educationally viable in the medium to long term, given the competition from other institutions, both regionally and nationally”.

Ucas data have indicated that the most selective universities have been able to expand courses and have in some cases lowered entry requirements following the removal of student number controls in 2015 – at the expense of less prestigious institutions.

Catherine Fletcher, professor of history at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that although this appeared to be the “market in action”, with students making the most of their ability to choose the most attractive course, it was actually bad news for both lower- and higher-tariff universities.

Lower-tariff institutions – often former polytechnics – offered applicants with lower grades, or those who wished to study locally, the chance to take subjects such as politics, she said.  

“These students can still do very well and get a lot out of the courses; they are also important for the region, such as for the study of local history,” she said. “Post-92s are incredibly good at teaching them to their specific needs, and this will now be lost.”

At the same time, it means these subjects in elite universities have become over-subscribed, leaving students with little pastoral support, she told Times Higher Education. “These are the unintended consequences of a volatile market,” she said.

Lee Jones, reader in international politics at Queen Mary University London, agreed. “The marketisation of higher education has caused this crisis. Because market forces are uncontrollable, they take down the good and the bad,” he said.

“Do we want it to be the case there is no history, politics or languages taught in the area? You would have to move away and that goes against the idea of student choice.”

More specialist institutions have also struggled to maintain their headcounts as students go elsewhere. SOAS – where undergraduate recruitment has fallen by 8 per cent over two years – told staff earlier this month that it would not approve any school-funded research leave for 2020-21, citing the “challenging financial environment” it faced. Research leave that has already been approved or is externally funded will still be allowed.

Dr Jones said that student number controls should be reintroduced. “More vocational courses are needed and it may be that it was a mistake to transform so many of the polytechnics into universities, as not everyone is suited for university, but we need to have a discussion about the overall purpose of tertiary education and create a rational system that is also sustainable,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

At last someone has the courage to state the obvious: More vocational courses are needed; perhaps it was a mistake to transform... polytechnics; not everyone is suited to university. HND, day release, apprenticeships were all proven methods of tertiary education and the issue has always been the perception of a technical qualification. Why is a time-served apprenticed fully qualified electrical professional not perceived as the same value of qualification as a degree.