Strategically important and high-cost subjects must be supported

30 June 2011

Commenting on the announcement today of HEFCE’s consultation on its teaching funding and student number controls, Dr Wendy Piatt, Director of the Russell Group of universities said:

“We welcomed much of the White Paper on HE including the Government’s commitment to a more diverse and competitive higher education sector which puts students first and we welcome the clarification provided by the HEFCE document. However, we are concerned that some proposals – like lifting the cap for students with AAB and the ‘core and margin’ model – may have unintended consequences and therefore need careful implementation. We are keen for reassurance that all these proposals will support and not disincentivise the teaching of strategically important and high-cost subjects in 2012-13 and beyond. Any overspends on the student support budget must not lead to a cut in funding for vital subjects.

“We recognise that the high cost of the student support package requires some controls in student numbers and believe that maintaining quality is more important than increasing overall student numbers.  We also agree that universities with high demand for courses from highly-qualified students should be allowed to expand.  But care should be taken to ensure that such a very selective lifting of the cap doesn’t make it harder for some universities to maintain teaching in strategically important subjects like sciences and languages. We therefore welcome the direction of travel intended for 2013 but recommend that the threshold for student number control should be reduced to ABB primarily for certain courses e.g. science and languages.

“We are also concerned that under the ‘core and margin’ proposal student numbers will be cut from all institutions, including those which have strong demand from well-qualified applicants and offer high quality teaching. We do not believe that re-distributing those student places to institutions charging lower fees will drive up quality or improve student choice.

“High-cost subjects such as medicine, engineering, chemistry and physics are extremely important to the future success of the UK’s economy and cannot be sustained on tuition fee income alone. Their teaching costs are significantly higher than other subjects because of the requirement for expensive laboratories and equipment. It is therefore essential that the remaining teaching grant available to HEFCE continues to be targeted at high-cost and strategically important subjects in order to secure their financial sustainability.  We are concerned by the suggestion in today’s publication that institutions charging lower fees for higher-cost subjects should receive more funding from HEFCE.  That would not only be unfair, but would be contrary to the whole thrust of the Government’s white paper, which is for institutions to be more responsive to student demand.

“Given the cuts to the teaching budget in England, the fairest and most effective way to ensure students receive the world-class education they need and deserve is through the graduate contribution scheme introduced by the Government.  At the same time, it is vital that the Government continues to invest directly in higher education teaching, particularly in high cost subjects if our world-class universities are to continue to perform their vital role as the engine room of economic recovery.”

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