Sussex to review degrees to match student demand

February 21, 2008

The University of Sussex is to re-think its portfolio of degree courses after the vice-chancellor ruled that too many programmes were "determined by staff preference" rather than what students need.

Under plans outlined in a "green paper" on Sussex's future strategy, the university also intends to focus its research activity in key "target areas" under general cross-disciplinary themes, such as international security. In a parallel move, the university is also undergoing its second major restructuring in the past five years.

Michael Farthing, the vice-chancellor, who joined the university in September, says in the green paper that Sussex needs to shift from a "selecting to a recruiting culture".

To meet "student demand and expectations", new programmes of business and management, creative arts, international security and biomedicine are required.

"Despite recent curriculum reforms, the Sussex portfolio is still complex either because of too many electives or because programmes are determined by staff preference and expertise rather than subject/student need," the paper says.

It stresses that the changes will require switching some 400 home-funded students from other disciplines. These areas will "suffer a loss of income ... unless time released from teaching can be usefully employed in other income-generating activities".

All "income-generating units" must generate a minimum surplus of 4 per cent on turnover, and while some "time-limited" cross-subsidy may be possible to keep less popular disciplines afloat this would be available only if sufficient extra cash were generated from other activities.

The proposals have raised concerns. "I'm worried about this, given the university's history of forcing people out," one academic said. The vice-chancellor has insisted he is not cost-cutting and has implied there will be no redundancies.

"The green paper envisages expansion in student numbers by chasing markets rather than focusing on a very high-quality student and student experience agenda. Is this really where we want to be?" another academic asked.

A section on research in the green paper discusses "concentration of resources into a number of target areas". "Cross-cutting research themes" suggested by focus groups so far include heritage, security, mind and brain and global transformations.

The theme of "security" has provoked loud protest. Staff have argued that Sussex is not well equipped to compete in the field and that it does not fit well with the university's history as a liberal institution. In a recent staff meeting, the vice-chancellor acknowledged these concerns.

Meanwhile another restructure is under way. Departments are to be merged into larger schools and three new faculties, headed by new appointees, will be established.

Professor Farthing said the new structure would "devolve resources and responsibilities deeper into the institution".

Plans have divided staff. One staff member commented that there would be "a loss of departmental autonomy as power is centralised in the hands of the new heads of schools, who will effectively be appointed by the v-c's executive group".

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