Monday, October 18, 2010

What is a "university"? Major changes ahead in British higher education

There are sweeping changes to the funding of British universities that may launch from 2012. These changes include a near 80% reduction in funding. This major cut will likely be countered by an increase of fees from about £3,200 per year to £7,000 or £8,000 per year or even higher. The expected result for government ministers is that a free market will emerge in higher education and, with this, there has been much talk about how universities might develop new mission statements and market strategies to carve out distinctive niches for themselves.

I suspect that one possible result will be a transformation of the British university. One possibility is the further disappearance of many departments at different universities. During the last wave of major cuts under the Thatcher Government, arts and humanities subjects suffered in particular -- the philosophy department at Newcastle University was one casualty.

I fear this may continue. One reason is that universities may focus more on subjects, such as science and engineering, to the exclusion of others, such as the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This may be because the former (and not the latter) is most likely to receive financial support from the government whereby all teaching grants in non-science subjects is likely to be cut altogether. (It is worth pausing to reflect the massive sea change: less than two decades ago the UK funded all subjects and shortly it will fund only a small part of a handful of subjects. This is a significant change.)

A second reason is that some universities may elect to specialize. Some may choose to focus on the social sciences, cutting departments in the arts and humanities in order to free up resources to bulk up provision in economics and political science, for example. Critical mass is helpful with creating a strong research environment and this may lead to some specializing in certain areas to the exclusion of others.

Some may wonder how any "university" worth its name could even contemplate moves, such as eliminating not just departments from academic areas, such as the arts, from its books. Shouldn't a university offer a diverse selection of subjects for students to study?

These criticisms may have many roots. One root may be the successful US higher education model where universities normally run courses across a wide variety of subjects. Some universities may be better known or more bulked up in certain subjects rather than others, but students can normally take classes in art history, philosophy, economics, and history wherever they choose to study.

This diversity is possible because of the widespread liberal arts model. In this model, students major in a subject, but take a greater majority of classes across a range of subjects. For example, they must sit and pass x number of courses in maths, science, humanities, social science, foreign language, and perhaps non-Western subjects. Thus, even a chemistry major will have the opportunity to sit courses in religious studies, etc. during her degree. Prospective students will expect a range of courses to select across a wide spectrum, whatever their preferred course of study.

The UK runs largely on a very different model. Students register for a degree in one or two subjects most often. They would then take all (or virtually all) classes in this subject alone. Thus, a chemistry student in the UK might not take any classes in the arts and humanities.

It is this absence of a liberal arts programme that makes possible cutting departments at British universities. While some may exclaim that no university worth its name should lack a philosophy department (or at least philosophy courses on its books), the response may be that, well, philosophy is not part of the university's "mission". After all, students do not take modules from as wide a spectrum as they might in the US by and large. Prospective students expect courses of interest on their degree programme, but show little interest (and have much less opportunity for) courses beyond their subject.

One way to defend departments in the new climate is to defend the idea of a university as a place where a wide spectrum of subjects ought to be maintained. However, this strategy may only get one so far. Why not specialize around a "core mission" with the advantages this may bring?

A far better alternative way to defend departments now is to call for the introduction of a liberal arts programme in British higher education. In the UK, the system has moved ever close to the US-model in some areas, but not others. Mass participation has been introduced and now a lifting on the tuition fee cap has been proposed.

It is time to follow the US on the liberal arts. This model best ensures that all students (irrespective of degree major) will attain standards of literacy and numeracy -- not simply as judged within a single discipline -- but across several, including English and mathematics lecturers. This will help with employability as students will also have a greater diversity of skills. Besides, most students will elect to work in a field different from what they study at university.

Finally, it will help save departments from being culled. This will be because a diversity of subjects is needed to make the programme work.

The time to propose this is now while subject diversity still largely exists. Let us hope our politicians are listening.


Alexander said...

Although I support the general idea here... how you managed to get through a whole article without mentioning what KCL are doing is beyond me...

The Brooks Blog said...

KCL's genuinely outstanding philosophy department did survive in the end.

Instead of focussing on any one university, my post only spoke about general trends and the very different systems at work in the UK and US, along with how department closures may be seen by some as less problematic in the UK as they would be in the US.

Nevertheless, my own position should be crystal clear: I entirely oppose department closures and endorse the US-liberal arts model.