The publication of Lord Browne’s Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance marked the beginning of an intense period of policy debate about higher education which is not yet concluded. The Government is shortly to launch its delayed White Paper (probably in late June) amid concerns that the current funding model, with most universities charging the top rate for tuition fees, is unsustainable and cannot be covered by the Treasury . The introduction, then raising of Tuition fees was always going to bring a spotlight onto the educational offer at our universities. Middle Class parents often support their children financially, either fully or in part, at university to stop them getting into debt and therefore take more interest in what their children actually do at these institutions. Short terms, ‘reading weeks’, (a modern trend that sees Departments effectively closing for a week, mid-term) reduced teaching time ,less one to one tuition, along with fewer seminars , assignments and lectures, leave the impression of a poorer overall offer and some parents and students clearly perceive declining standards . The focus on research and the funding tied to research has meant that most universities see teaching students as a second order priority. Liberal Arts and other more flexible courses in US universities which appeal to many students, are attracting more of our best home grown students. Enrolments of UK students at Yale University have doubled in five years. Other Ivy League colleges also report significant rises in UK students signing up. Rapid expansion in university places in the 1980s and 1990s has not been matched over time by funding, the effects of which cannot be concealed. Some students have demonstrated against this perceived decline and the quality of their courses. Student complaints against universities in England and Wales have reached record levels according to the higher education ombudsman’s (Office if the Independent Adjudicator) annual report. The independent adjudicator’s office says complaints rose by 33 % last year. The OIA received more than 2,000 enquiries last year and a record 1,341 complaints . Around half were found not be justified, although there has been a small increase in justified complaints. The OIA found that two universities-Southampton and Westminster were non-compliant ie they failed to comply with the adjudicators rulings.
Higher Education institutions must wake up to the fact that they are in transition to a demand led industry in which they must be globally competitive, designing courses that appeal to students with high quality teaching. Although Professor Grayling attracted much flak with the recent launch of the private New College , he probably has a clearer idea than many of his colleagues as to where the sector is heading.