Survey reveals crisis fears

January 10, 1997

BRITISH academics think that higher education is in deep financial and academic trouble; but they cannot agree on a solution.

A survey of academic staff from junior researchers to vice chancellors, carried out exclusively for The THES, reveals widespread dissatisfaction about what are seen as falling standards, and near-universal agreement that student hardship is harming higher education.

These severe perceived problems with funding and quality seem to be eroding support for a larger sector. Sixty-two per cent of academics think that the target of 40 per cent participation in higher education, endorsed by the Confederation of British Industry and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, should still stand and 60 per cent of further education staff and 74 per cent of senior university personnel, at department-head level or above, agree with this objective.

Our previous survey in 1993 found 91 per cent of academics in favour of expanding access.

Academics are also losing confidence in the standing of their own work. Sixty-seven per cent think that British higher education has lower standards in international comparison than in 1980 and only 10 per cent think standards have risen. In 1993, 57 per cent thought standards had fallen since 1980 and 12 per cent thought they had risen.

There is also overwhelming support for the idea that student hardship is damaging academic performance. Ninety-two per cent of academics agree or agree strongly with this proposition, including 94 per cent in further education, with 2 per cent of do not knows and only 4 per cent disagreeing. In 1993, 86 per cent, already a strong majority, agreed or agreed strongly.

However, there is less agreement about what can be done about the problems. Concentration seems to be unpopular as a solution. Only 30 per cent of respondents, exactly as many as in 1993, think that the right to award research degrees should be restricted to departments which score well in funding council assessments, while 56 per cent disagree, nearly the same as the 58 per cent three years ago.

More strikingly, only 25 per cent agree that research funding should be concentrated in the departments which did well in the RAE, with 64 per cent disagreeing. We asked the questions a few weeks before the RAE results were made public.

But there are conflicting views on the concept of allowing new institutions into higher education. Asked whether it was wrong to allow polytechnics and some colleges of higher education to become universities, 52 per cent disagree or disagree strongly, down from 59 per cent three years ago. Then 30 per cent of respondents agreed or agreed strongly, a total which has risen to 37 per cent.

But there seems to be more sympathy for the next possible wave of higher education institutions - further education colleges doing degree-level work.

Asked to agree that further education colleges should not take on degree work, only 33 per cent agreed or agreed strongly from our total sample, including 26 per cent of people working in colleges of further or higher education. Fifty-seven per cent of the sample agree or agree strongly.

The key issue of how an expanded higher education sector, or even the one we have already, is to be paid for is the vital one on which participants in the enterprise cannot agree. For example, 42 per cent disagree that any extra public money going into the sector should go into further education rather than universities, with only 30 per cent supporting the idea, despite the support for these colleges being allowed to do more degree work.

Asked whether students should contribute to the cost of their tuition, only 22 per cent of the sample agree or agree strongly, with 69 per cent disagreeing or disagreeing strongly.

Instead, 64 per cent think that employers should contribute to the cost of tuition, with only 23 per cent disagreeing. In 1993, 65 per cent of our sample thought that teaching costs should be paid by Government and that students should not repay.

From the respondents who think that students should contribute to the cost of their tuition, 57 per cent think that the repayment machinery should involve an extra tax paid by all graduates. Twenty eight per cent prefer a repayable loan scheme while 14 per cent did not like either.

However, academics are growing more appreciative of the wonders of commercial funding for their work. Fifty-seven per cent agree or agree strongly that this money has benefited higher education, with only 23 per cent against. In 1993, 47 per cent agreed and 29 per cent did not.

But academics seem to agree that the sector ought to be in charge of its own destiny academically and institutionally as far as possible. Fifty-six per cent think that higher education can be trusted to exercise control over its own quality, with 33 per cent disagreeing. And at the height of the row over Wafic Said and his proposed Oxford business school, 77 per cent thought that large private donations to universities ought to be subject to approval by open democratic procedures.

The research was carried out in late 1996 with a weighted sample of 407 people from all levels of higher and further education.

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