5,000 ‘soft degree courses axed’

‘Staggering’ reduction in numbers of degree courses

Everyone’s favourite source of educational critique, Mail Online, conflates several stories and comes up with some earth-shattering news. Some universities are responding to changes in student demand by discontinuing some courses:

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Universities have axed 5,000 degree courses in preparation for cuts in state funding and the trebling of tuition fees, due to take effect in 2012.

Figures show there are 38,147 courses on offer through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service for entry in 2012, down a staggering 12 per cent, from 43,360.

Vice-chancellors have targeted their least popular non-academic courses – ‘soft subjects’ that offer poor employment prospects such as Caribbean Studies – because they are loss-making.

Some universities, such as London Metropolitan, have slashed more than 60 per cent of their courses, including philosophy, performing arts and history.

The University of East Anglia has announced the closure of its music school, which was opened in the 1960s with the help of Benjamin Britten.

The figures, from Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, come as universities fear applications for so-called ‘Mickey Mouse courses’ will reduce to a trickle when students face the prospect of £9,000 a year fees.

So, universities behave as you would expect them to in response to changes in student preferences. And there really is no case to be made that music, philosophy, performing arts, history and Caribbean Studies are either ‘soft’ or only appropriate for study by diminutive cartoon characters.

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British students flocking to the US Ivy League. Or not?

An untrained brain drain?

In a recent post I commented on the press reports on the modest flow of English students to universities in continental Europe and the reverse flow of other EU students to the UK. The media seems extremely keen to report any international movement by students from the UK as evidence of a flight from the 2012 fee regime (at least for students from England). So, the Telegraph has a feature on British students turning to US Ivy League universities:

According to figures, Harvard had around 500 British applications to start courses this autumn, up from around 370 for last year – a 35 per cent increase.

Yale enrolled 36 British students onto undergraduate courses last year, up from 25 in 2009 – a 44 per cent rise. Five years ago, in 2006, just 15 students enrolled.

Some 197 students from England and Wales alone have applied to start courses at Cornell this autumn, up from 176 last year.

Information from Columbia University shows that 178 British students enrolled in 2009, up from 164 in 2008 and 151 in 2003.

Berkeley University, which is not an Ivy League college, has had 166 British applications for this autumn, compared with 130 last year.

To put this into perspective, there were over 630,000 applications through UCAS for 2011 entry to UK universities. And there were over 14,300 US students studying in the UK in 2008/09. This is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

Universities ‘scared of private sector’

Oh no we’re not

Some festive cheer from politics.co.uk.

The analysis here is somewhat overstating the case though:

Massive efficiency savings which could drive down costs in higher education are only possible if university managers get over their suspicion of the private sector, Policy Exchange has claimed. A report by the centre-right thinktank’s Alex Massey published today argues that significant benefits are possible from “productive collaborative arrangements”.

Up to 30% of the total cost of university administration could be saved if more services were shared, the report claims. Across the total higher education sector this amounts to £2.7 billion.

There really is nothing much new in this report from Policy Exchange, the full text of which can be found here.

Four brief points to note:

  1. Universities really do need the VAT changes we have argued for for many years in order to create real incentives for sharing services (the report endorses this).
  2. Simply outsourcing lots of services does not necessarily deliver a better service for students or guarantee savings: it works in certain areas in certain contexts at certain times but is no panacea.
  3. The report rightly acknowledges significant examples of sector wide shared services which already exist, including UCAS, but also what about JANET and jobs.ac.uk? Not sure would really argue that QAA is a shared service in the same sense although there is a case for HESA.
  4. The savings figures quoted here are just fantasy.

So, overall a modest contribution to the very real challenges facing universities. Yes, we should collaborate more on services but only where it will both deliver savings and improve the quality of the service we provide. But the idea that universities are ‘scared’ of the private sector is very wide of the mark.

Providing information that helps students with HE choices

New consultation on providing information that helps students make the right higher education choices

HEFCE has launched a consultation on information for prospective students:

Schools, colleges, universities, student unions and a wide range of other bodies are being asked to comment on the information that higher education (HE) providers publish to help prospective students choose the course and institution that are best for them.

They are invited to respond to a consultation being conducted by HEFCE, Universities UK and GuildHE. The consultation mainly concerns a proposed Key Information Set (KIS) which all publicly funded HE providers in England and Northern Ireland would be required to publish for each course on their web-sites.

The press release continues:

The consultation is informed by the results of research commissioned by HEFCE, and undertaken by Oakleigh Consulting and Staffordshire University, which identified the information current and prospective students identified as ‘very useful’. This mostly relates to costs, satisfaction and employability. Information about the fees for each course will also be included.

The intention is that information will be presented in a standardised format on each university and college web-site, looking similar for all courses at all institutions, thus making the information potentially more useful, comparable and accessible. Discussions are also taking place about how the information can be linked to the UCAS web-site.

But do prospective students really need more information? And is this kind of standardised set of data really going to help inform decisions. Or will most students turn to other sources such as The Times League Table rather than this sort of information. Guess we’ll find out.

Higher education as food labelling

Food labelling for university courses

From the BBC website:

School leavers applying to English universities will get more data about courses under government plans to treat them more like consumers. A food labelling-style system will flag up teaching hours, career prospects and seminar frequency, says the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

On Tuesday, it will announce a new framework for higher education. The plan aims to set out priorities for universities ahead of a review of the way students fund their education. Tuition fees were introduced in 1998 and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson believes this entitles students to act more like consumers.

He has said government and industry must scrutinise and monitor courses on behalf of students, encouraging “a greater degree of competition between institutions” to drive improvement in courses. His department already publishes statistics on employability after six months and three-and-a-half years, but the latest plans would put information in one place. This could include graduates’ typical future earnings, contact hours with tutors, assessment methods and frequency of tests.

So instead of detailed descriptions of each course in prospectuses, via ucas, on university websites and the detail of league table subject comparisons, we are going to have something like this:

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It really isn’t at all clear how this is going to be in any way an improvement or of real value to prospective students. Consolidating small pieces of information into one place in this way suggests that a much more superficial assessment of quality is the aim here. And how is it going to be decided what is red and what is green?

Let’s hope that the real proposals are a bit better than this implies.

5% “cheat on UCAS forms”

Large number of UCAS cheats

But to what end?! Anyway, UCAS is going to scan all personal statements this time around according to the BBC. We’ll see how many use the burnt pyjamas story next time (284 in the trial last year I think). So, we’ll find out when a personal statement is not actually a personal statement and then universities will have to decide what action to take. Will we really turn away 1 in 20 applicants?