Thursday, 16 May 2013

The great university tuition hours controversy: you read it here first


The latest news from England's ongoing student fees debacle is as predictable as it is depressing.

Briefly, the latest manufactured 'row' amounts to this: universities are now charging nine times what they charged just a few short years ago (in the times of plenty, rather than austerity and dearth). And yet teaching and contact hours have gone up by only a tiny little bit. Now, don't get university lecturers started. You and they know that the number of contact hours doesn't relate to the quality of the education received at these august institutions. You and they understand that most higher education must be self-directed research and learning - otherwise, students might as well stay at school for a few more years.

And we all know that universities don't have all that much more cash than they did when fees were as low as £1,000. The UK government has removed almost all of their teaching grant (or is in the process of doing so), so undergraduates may be paying a lot more, but there isn't a vast increase in cash pouring into Vice Chancellors' coffers to deal with all the extra expectation that might mount with a higher price tag. This would hamstring any attempt to push up teaching hours and the number of lectures, even before we take into account that there's no simple correlation at all between higher spending and more academic productivity.

We know all that - and we've known it all along. Still, the less sophisticated among the commentariat are up in arms.

It's important in this context to remember where we've come from, and where we might be going. You might have a slight feeling of deja vu here if you're a regular reader of this blog, because it's what we've predicted here all along. What did we say here at PPP, way back in October 2010? Let's take a look:
The main problem... will come about because of the withdrawal of most government funding for tuition. Most of the extra money will simply be swallowed up by [a] funding ‘black hole’ – a fact explicitly accepted by the [Browne] Report, which recommended a £6,000 soft cap for fees to drive ill-defined (and unlikely) ‘efficiency savings’. Students are not going to see any return for their extra outlays, even if they pay £12,000 per annum. 27 per cent of that charge will pass directly to the government, leaving only a small increase in funding over the total unit of resource even at ‘elite’ institutions. In fact, just the reverse – buildings are going to deteriorate, they are going to see their tutors less, IT investment will slow, and research laboratories will be slimmed down. They are unlikely to take all this in good humour.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it, in the context of student and parental complaints about 'quality' and the amount of teaching received in universities? Just nod, it's okay. To drive the point home, there was also this, that I wrote at about the same time:
This is a very high-risk strategy - something that should come as no surprise given the Coalition Government's decision to simultaneously revolutionise the NHS, the constitution, local government and macroeconomic policy. If it goes wrong, there may be little political capital left to reconstruct universities that have gone bankrupt. Academics' discussion should focus on the redistribution of risk: from the old to the young; from the collective to the individual; from government to the university managers and teachers who will have to manage student unrest. It is this new and bitter game that will dominate the years ahead.
Yes, well, don't give me any medals for prescience just yet. But it's not a bad record.

Marketising Higher Education, while giving it no more money overall, was always a recipe for tension, dispute and downright arm-wrestling within academe. For if they are encouraged to think of their university years as a consumer product, with a price-tag, and measured by its quantity as well as its quantity, who is to blame anyone for taking our universities to task when there seems no relation at all between actual costs and provision for the individual?

Remember: you read it here first.

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