Unfilled course numbers rise despite cutbacks

Do the data represent the failure of market research or are they the inevitable by-product of a broad curriculum?

April 18, 2013

Source: Corbis

Take any seat: unpopular courses can incur lots of small costs, but some think that is the price of offering a broad curriculum

The number of degree programmes offered by universities that failed to enrol any students has risen despite cutbacks in course portfolios, Times Higher Education has found.

There was a 7.6 per cent rise in the number of unfilled courses between 2011-12 and 2012-13 at universities that responded to a THE Freedom of Information request, sparking debate over whether unfilled courses represent a costly failure to do proper market research or are an inevitable by-product of a broad curriculum.

Sixty universities told THE how many degree courses (including part-time and postgraduate taught programmes, but excluding joint honours) had failed to recruit over the past two years.

There were 934 unfilled courses in total in 2011-12 and 1,005 in 2012-13, an average of 17 per university this year. Only 10 universities say they recruited students to every course on offer in 2012-13.

The rise in unfilled programmes comes despite a fall in the number of full-time undergraduate courses made available through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, from 43,000 for 2011-12 entry to 38,000 the following year.

The number on offer in 2013-14 will be even lower, according to Ucas - 35,000.

Meanwhile, there were close to 23,000 postgraduate taught degrees on offer in 2012-13, according to Prospects, the graduate careers service, a number that has remained “fairly consistent” in recent years, according to a spokeswoman for the service.

A total of 181 degree courses went unfilled at the University of Central Lancashire in 2012-13, the highest total that year, including full-time bachelor’s programmes in advertising, contemporary crafts and photography.

A spokesman for Uclan pointed out that it offered nearly 700 courses and that more than 100 of the unfilled programmes were part-time.

Dave Phoenix, Uclan’s deputy vice-chancellor, said: “In order to offer the most flexible provision, the majority of programmes at the university are validated with a part-time and a full-time option, although historically the vast majority of these run in full-time mode only.”

London Metropolitan University offers the most dramatic example of course cutting. In 2011, it announced that two-thirds of its undergraduate portfolio would be scrapped, including history, philosophy and the performing arts. Malcolm Gillies, its vice-chancellor, advised universities to review their course offerings every year.

“A large and unruly portfolio is hard to promote and even harder to service to current expectations of student satisfaction,” he said.

London Met, along with 22 other universities in relation to 2011-12 data and 23 institutions for 2012-13, refused to divulge the number of unfilled courses, claiming such information was commercially sensitive.

Fewer punters, fewer takers

Some of the rise in unfilled programmes despite course closures could be explained by figures published last month in Higher Education in England: Impact of the 2012 Reforms, a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It reveals a 26.6 per cent decline in the part-time undergraduate and postgraduate total in England in 2012-13. Ucas figures show that UK undergraduate acceptances fell by 5.5 per cent in the same year.

But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, lamented the drop in the number of undergraduate courses available, adding that just because a programme was unpopular one year, “that must not automatically signify its demise”.

“Our academic reputation for excellence is built on the broad range of subjects available and the opportunities for academics to push at the boundaries and create new areas of study,” she said.

Peter Reader, director of marketing and communications at the University of Portsmouth, said unfilled courses were inevitable because “fashions do change” and recruitment was not an “exact science”.

However, far more universities were now “systematically” reviewing their course portfolios, he added, with much more emphasis on “early stage market intelligence”.

But there were still unpopular courses “getting through the system because people haven’t done enough market research”, he argued.

Keeping an unfilled course open incurred lots of small costs “that do add up”, Mr Reader said.

A Hefce project, Innovation in the Market Assurance of New Programmes, which reported in 2011, found that between 2005 and 2008, nearly a quarter of new undergraduate courses and more than half of joint honours programmes failed to attract a single student.


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Reader's comments (1)

London Metropolitan still offers courses in (International) Finance. Some are taught by Humphrey Shaw, Principal Lecturer. The VC and the Business School Dean should read books written by Shaw "Strategic Financial Management" (especially chapter 7, mostly about probability theory) and "Accounting and Finance in Organisations" (both published by Sheila Ritchie, trading as Elm Publications), or have them reviewed by competent persons.