The recent announcement about possible two-year undergraduate courses, which led to an initial critical response from many academics, has been followed by an article from Sonia Sodha demanding that ‘arrogant universities’ should get with the programme. This has, predictably, prompted further indignation among academics – something the Guardian seem to delight in provoking on a regular basis.

Anyway, this is a short-and-swift response to that article. In particular, there are three aspects that I take issue with –

1. Money money money…

Sodha suggests that universities are less than honest about how they are spending the extra cash flooding in from raised tuition fees (and I agree that we need public and open accounting). Indeed, she states that universities ‘have enjoyed a 28% extra windfall in average per-student funding’. 

I would like to see the evidence for this claim (Sodha offers none). Firstly, universities faced a 12% cut in government funding in 2011 (as the Guardian itself reported). Secondly, according to the OECD, UK universities spent on average $14,000 dollars per student in 2011. At exchange rates for that year, that would be about £8,500. Using the Bank of England’s handy inflation calculator, that’s now worth about £9,500. In other words (as far as available evidence shows, and assuming that universities have not substantially decreased their expenditure on students), universities are generally spending the same on students as students are paying. As Sodha points out, some courses or institutions cost or charge less; but some courses cost more to deliver than the fees charged, and are therefore effectively subsidised. 

It’s also worth emphasising that universities did not ask for the funding cuts or fee rises. Many academics would be delighted to drop student fees, if other sources of funding were available. 

2. …what is it good for?

Sodha also writes that ‘Students of history and languages report an average of just eight hours of lectures and seminars a week’, and implies that this is hardly value for money. This shows a colossal – but quite common – misunderstanding about how university education works. 

I would say that what a university provides is the resources to learn. One of those resources is teaching staff, and students’ time with them is obviously of vital importance to their studies (as I like to point out to my students). However, there are lots of other resources too. Working spaces on campus. Computers and software. Laboratory equipment. For arts and humanities subjects, a major resource are library books and journal or database subscriptions. These are very expensive (the model of academic publishing is a topic for another time). Perhaps some universities do not prioritise these resources as much as they should; but I suspect that if you tried to follow the same programme of studies without going through a university, you’d end up paying even more, because universities benefit from economies of scale. 

An important point here is that independent learning is key to university education. In teaching students critical thinking, we want them to do it by themselves: to identify and evaluate sources of information – to judge between reliable facts and ‘alternative facts’ – and then synthesise that information into their own understanding. This does not abdicate teachers’ responsibilities to guide and support students, but self-directed work is crucial. Taking classroom hours as a guide to teaching quality or the value of a degree is extremely short-sighted.

3. Three years or two?

My last thoughts are to do with the idea of two year degrees. In principle, I think flexible and alternative degrees models are a great idea: students are all different, and we should provide whatever works for them. However, I have three caveats.

Firstly, I am suspicious of ‘fast-track’ things. Doing something properly takes time. That’s not to say you can’t do a degree non-stop in two years; but there may be something lost in trying to speed up the process.

Secondly, I’m not convinced this model will in fact open doors that are currently closed. Some students might need to work through the summer in order to support their studies; or they might be prevented from undertaking full-time study by financial or personal commitments. A two-year fast-track degree is not going to solve those problems. I would be much more in favour of flexible part-time options – but part-time student numbers have declined by 38% in the last five years. There doesn’t seem to be much attention to reversing that trend.

Finally, the scheme could have side-effects. Most universities expect (demand?) that staff do things besides teaching, chiefly research. A course running all year might mean depriving some staff of the time to do these other activities; this would intensify the division that already exists between research and teaching staff (the latter already often on ‘Sports Direct’ contracts – according to the Guardian, and acknowledged by Sodha), and between research-intensive and teaching-intensive universities. I don’t see that as a good thing for staff or students.

Yes, universities need to innovate and provide flexible arrangements for their students, and open accounting is a good thing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should blindly follow the latest policy idea. One thing you learn from studying history is that ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ are not always the same thing.


2 thoughts on “Universifees

  1. Well said. Yes, there is a place for “fast track” degrees, but it’s probably where someone who already has a degree in one discipline opts to do another in a different discipline.

    And yes, universities are (or were) resource centres, not training institutions. Way back when dinosaurs walked the earth and I did my first degree, I learnt most from my reading, and next most from conversations with my tutors and with my fellow students. I fear that the days of universities as facilitators of independent learning (and thinking habits) are going, if not already gone.

    • Thanks! I hold out hope that universities can still be places for independent learning and thinking, but you’re right that the circumstances don’t always make it easy. Another thing that bothers me is the idea of students as customers and the degree as a transaction – this too potentially diminishes the importance of students developing independently.

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