Edition: UC3, Summer 2012

Freedom to choose?

28 May 2012

Stephen Court

The total number of full-time undergraduate courses offered by UK  universities and colleges has fallen by more than a quarter since 2006 as funding cuts and increases in tuition fees hit higher education.

And analysis of a sample of single-subject degree courses showed a 14% cut since 2006, although the number rose slightly in 2012

Sir Richard Roberts, chief scientific officer at the New England Biolabs and Nobel Laureate for Medicine or Physiology, said in a report published in February by UCU, Choice cuts – How choice has declined in higher education: ‘The decisions currently being undertaken by many universities and encouraged by the British government seem completely contrary to the idea of providing a broad and balanced education for university students.

‘For instance, I notice that some universities have been closing chemistry departments where one of the key subject areas for understanding biology is taught.  This just makes no sense. Others close humanities departments presumably because they are not viewed as “profitable”. In my mind such decisions need much greater thought than appears to be undertaken at present. Chemistry and the humanities need to be taught if students are to develop critical thinking skills and to acquire a broad knowledge about the world we live in.’

Research by University and College Union based on data provided by UCAS shows that between 2006 and 2012, the total number courses offered in the UK fell from 70,052 to 51,116, a reduction of 27%.

Since institutions may withdraw offered courses during the applications cycle because, for example, insufficient students apply for them, UCAS also produces data on the number of courses available at the end of the applications cycle. This is called the final or published number of courses, and showed a fall of 29% in the UK, from 50,077 to 35,687 courses, between 2006 and 2012.

The reduction of total courses on offer during the applications cycle was greatest in England, with a drop of 31%, followed by Northern Ireland (24%), Wales (11%) and Scotland (3%).

Is there a link between the reduction in courses and the public spending and tuition fee regime in the different parts of the UK?

While tuition fees for full-time undergraduates from the UK at HEIs in England will be up to £9,000 a year in 2012-13, Northern Ireland-domiciled students studying in Northern Ireland will only have to pay £3,465, Welsh-domiciled undergraduates studying throughout the UK will only have to pay £3,465, and Scottish-domiciled undergraduates studying in Scotland will not have to pay any fees. So England, the country with the highest rates of tuition fees, is facing the biggest reduction in the number of undergraduate courses, and the country with the most benign fee regime – Scotland – has much the lowest level of course cutting.

In addition, public spending cuts are the most severe in England, where funding reductions are being implemented at the same time as public spending on teaching in higher education is being replaced by full-time undergraduate tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.

Nevertheless, within the regions England there is a wide range in the extent of course cutting. Nearly half (47%) of undergraduate courses are being cut in the South West, but only 1% of courses are being cut in the East Midlands.

Philip Schofield, professor of the history of legal and political thought, and director of the Bentham Project at University College London (UCL), told UCU: ‘ … limiting the number of courses will diminish the student experience by curtailing their choice of subjects. It will adversely affect new and innovative research by taking away the opportunities for researchers to present their latest findings and discussing their latest theories to a receptive and inquisitive audience of students. It will close off sources of knowledge. To sum up, it will make UK universities a much less attractive proposition for both home and international students, who value the depth and diversity of our research and teaching.’

UCU’s analysis of single-subject or principal degree courses showed that in 2006, UK higher education institutions and further education colleges provided 7,002 principal subject degree courses, across 141 subjects from Pre-Clinical Medicine, to ‘Others in Education’. This number fell to 6,182 courses in 2010, a reduction of 11.7%, then to 5,968 in 2011, before rising slightly to 6,024 in 2012. In all, between 2006 and 2012, there was a 14.0% reduction in provision of these single subject degree courses.

While single subject STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) degree courses fell by 14.6%, there were slightly lower reductions in social sciences (12.8%) and arts & humanities (14.0%). Although student numbers continued to rise through this period, the prospect and implementation of public spending cuts from the financial crisis of 2008 onwards, will have had a significant impact on single subject course provision, as HEIs and Further Education Colleges providing higher education have sought to reduce costs.

Although the reductions in principal subject courses in England was similar to the overall picture in the UK, there was a decline of almost one quarter in the number of principal subjects provided in Wales between 2006 and 2012, with the falls slightly sharper in social sciences (25%) and arts and humanities (25%) than in STEM (22%).

The fall in principal subjects provided in Scotland, of 8% overall between 2006 and 2012, was around half the rate of decrease in England, and more than three times less than in Wales.

While STEM and social science subjects were reduced by 9% each in Scotland, arts and humanities subjects only fell by 2%.

Northern Ireland, like Scotland, showed only a relatively small decline in the provision of principal subjects. This may be linked to the small number of HE institutions in Northern Ireland, and a sense that, because of the greater separation of the province from the rest of the UK, its HEIs have an obligation to maintain a breadth in provision for home students.

To look in more detail at the change in courses, UCU selected a sample of principal subjects in STEM, social sciences, and arts and humanities, and analysed their provision on a regional basis in England. In the UCU sample, some STEM courses were cut between 2006 and 2012, particularly in biology, physical geographical sciences and computer science. In social sciences, there was some reduction in provision between 2006 and 2012 in some subjects in England, particularly in human and social geography, and sociology.

And in arts and humanities subjects there was a reduction in the number of institutions providing some single subject courses in England, particularly French studies, German studies, and history by topic.

Some of these subjects were not provided in some English regions, particularly the Eastern region (since 2010: no Latin studies, Classical Greek studies, French studies, German studies, or Chinese studies); North East (in 2012: no Latin studies, Classical Greek studies, French studies, German studies, or History by topic); South West (in 2012: no Latin studies, Classical Greek studies, Chinese studies, or History by area).

Donald Braben, honorary professor in life sciences at University College London, expressed his concerns about the negative impact these changes are having on higher education: ‘I fear that we are going backwards. Universities exist to challenge what we think we know and offer well-argued and coherent alternatives. They are unique in these respects. However, if we limit their scope and oblige them to concentrate on short-term practical problems their advice might be indistinguishable from that provided by many other sources. Meanwhile, the big problems would continue unresolved.

‘All major developments in the last century were unpredicted. Take the internet: were the universities being urged to offer lessons on the internet in the 70s and 80s? Industrial opinion notoriously changes with their balance sheets.  If we gear institutions solely to what we perceive students and employers want then that is precisely what we will get. Stagnation will follow. But who was asking for the internet, for example, in the 70s or 80s?’

And James Ladyman, professor of philosophy and head of the department of philosophy at the University of Bristol, told UCU: ‘I am really concerned that under the new funding environment universities will look at concentrating their resources on courses which they believe will deliver the highest financial return. The loss of the block grant has taken away an important measure of financial security that allowed institutions to plan for the future.

‘Provision shouldn’t be decided on the basis of short-term popularity contests but when you introduce a market that is what happens. Institutions need to be able to offer a wide breadth of courses, especially with more students likely to study closer to home in the future. It is very easy to undermine capacity quickly but takes years to rebuild these knowledge bases. The intellectual culture of a university is massively enhanced by having students studying a range of disciplines living and studying together.’

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Stephen Court is UCU’s senior research officer