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 this week ) 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. Recent research from Edge, the charity dedicated to raising the status of practical education, found that Britain’s middle income parents of children aged 11-18 years old have changed their education aspirations for their child, with many saying university doesn’t provide the best return on investment. 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 . Certainly parents who have been to university compare their experiences with those of their children and can spot the glaring differences.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 are attracting more of our best home grown students. Yale has seen UK student enrolments double in five years, with other Ivy League colleges seeing similar increases. 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 of 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.
It is clear that the some universities are finding it difficult to adjust to a changing environment and pay too little attention to the teaching and support they give to their students. The goal posts have shifted. and they are now operating in a world that requires greater transparency and accountability, both in terms of admissions policy , the quality of teaching and course content and the employability of their students.