Cut costs, not places
In yesterday’s Guardian the Provost of University College London argued that we should maintain the level of funding for science and research-led higher education by cutting places for humanities and arts degrees. This is too simplistic an approach and risks reducing access to Higher Education and devaluing the diversity of the HE sector and reducing degree subjects on offer.
Rather than cutting places on humanities degrees Government should look at cutting the amount of time it takes to get one. We already know that different subjects require different periods of study – medicine and engineering take five or six years, architecture up to seven. There is a clear case for differing subjects at undergraduate level.
The University of Buckingham has been free to experiment with the length of courses because they are the UK’s only private university. They have cut the bulk of their humanities and arts undergraduate degrees from three to two years – reducing both the cost to the university and the debt acquired by students undertaking these degrees. It is worth bearing in mind that the University of Buckingham came top for student satisfaction, with the lowest level of graduate unemployment, the best student / staff ratio and the lowest drop-out rate compared to benchmark in the Sunday Times Good University Guide for 2010.
It costs Buckingham students £15,500 to pursue the two-year programme and – as Buckingham is a private institution – this represents the full cost of delivery. It is reasonable to compare these costs with the amounts charged by state universities for overseas students pursuing undergraduate arts and humanities degrees with them. At the University of Brunel a humanities degree will cost a foreign student £9,750 a year (or £29,250 over the course of 3 years). At the University of Kent that figure is £10,350 a year (or £31,050 over the course of 3 years). A figure of around £30,000 to deliver a full undergraduate non-scientific degree over the course of 3 years is around average in terms of what state universities charge to recoup costs from overseas students. Delivering these degrees in 2 years – as Buckingham do for a cost of £15,500 – could mean reducing the cost by as much as half.
The idea of ‘turbo-charged’ degrees is not entirely new. The Labour Government asked Higher Education institutions to look at how to develop and implement them back in 2009 – saying, ‘Over the next spending review period, we will want some shift away from full-time three year places and towards a wider variety of provision’. However, progress is too slow and Universities do not appear to have fully grasped the shortfall in funding that is likely to affect them or the full potential for savings of reducing the duration of degrees. Rather than choosing between different courses to cut Provosts and Vice-Chancellors should be looking at radical ways to maintain access whilst reducing costs. This innovative solution could – and should – be properly investigated before Government begins to slash places reduce access.