The Hollowness of “Student Choice” when Teaching Grant is Axed

By Professor Nicola Miller

With no public discussion, consultation, research or mandate, the government intends to impose a supply-and-demand model of university funding that threatens to introduce all the horrors of boom and bust into the UK’s highly successful university sector.  In all the furore about tuition fees of £9000, it has largely escaped public notice that the government intends to cut all direct teaching grant for arts, humanities and social sciences, and to reduce it sharply for science subjects.  Funding for teaching university students will be cut by a staggering 80% — when the highest level of public sector cuts proposed was 40% and the overall average has turned out to be around 11%.  The only reason that tuition fees need to be so high is to make up for these savage cuts.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend (5 December) that in the government’s proposals the money would follow the students “and quite rightly so”.  But on what basis has it been decided that “student choice” is the right principle on which to base higher education policy?  The government’s argument is that universities will be obliged to raise the standards of teaching and offer a better “student experience” than hitherto.  But what will the government’s proposals really mean for the students whose “choice” and “experience” are being trumpeted as their main rationale?

Without any predictable income stream for teaching, and with few reserves to cushion “market failure”, universities will be obliged to reduce the only costs over which they have any control:  their staff.  A reduced core of permanent staff will offer a reduced range of degrees with a reduced choice of courses.  “Choice” will be limited to the tried and tested topics that are known to be “popular”.  Students will lose the opportunity to extend their horizons and explore things that they never even heard about at school.

It’s not only the students who will be subject to supply and demand, but also the academics who teach them.  Instead of being able to sustain a community of scholars who combine excellence in teaching and research, universities will be forced to rely more and more on a casual labour force of short-term, part-time teaching staff .  At present, students often say how much they value a university department that is intellectually coherent and vibrant.  It will be impossible to sustain such an inspiring intellectual environment when short-term supply-and-demand factors determine whether a department continues to exist from one academic year to the next.  The people who will lose out most of all will be the students.  The successful academics will simply go elsewhere, to other countries where intellectual life is still appreciated.

Students themselves are of course all too well aware of what is going to happen, which is why they oppose not only the rise in tuition fees but also the cuts in teaching grant.  Make no mistake about it, if these policies are implemented the “student experience” is likely to get worse not better.  The government’s appeal to “student choice” is smoke and mirrors.

Such far-reaching changes should not be made in such unseemly haste.  The Browne Review looked narrowly at the question of student finance.  It had nothing to say about the consequences of cutting the teaching grant.  Lifting the cap on fees would be one thing. But changing the entire basis on which universities are funded is an extraordinary and potentially disastrous decision for a coalition government to take with no political mandate, no debate or evidence about the consequences, and almost no public awareness about what is happening.  Boom and bust has been derided as a model for the UK economy.  We call upon all members of parliament to stop and think about the likely consequences of introducing in into the UK’s world-ranked universities.

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