Universities Challenged

Posted on: 13 December 2010 by Alexander Hay

The tuition fee debate risks leading us away from the real problem: Wasteful, inefficient universities.

Oxford University's dreaming spires are magnificent - but are they really worth £9000 a year?

Last week's vote on tuition fees will not be the last we've heard on the matter, not least with other unpopular cuts on the horizon. But as this lecturer points out, one issue has been almost entirely overlooked - now that students will have to pay up to £9000 a year, what are they actually paying for?

I may as well disclose my interest in the issue. For the past five years, I've lectured undergraduate students at two institutions and so have some insight into what actually goes on at university.

In particular, how much a lecture costs. Students attend (give or take sloth and hangovers) around 100 lectures and seminars a year. Since they presently pay £3290 tuition fees a year, this means each lecture costs them £32.90. 

How much does their education cost the university, though? According to HEFCE, it costs £7300 a year per student, but tellingly no actual cost breakdown is available. Nonetheless, and factoring in some courses that cost a great deal to teach, like medicine and hard science subjects, and others that cost little, like Philosophy and English literature, some educated guesses can be made as to how much education really costs.

Assuming I teach eight students for two hours, plus an extra half hour for preparation time, and am paid an average rate, I would cost the university £75 a lecture. Assuming it cost (on average) £15 per student per lecture to keep the library open, ICT available, the buildings in good condition and for all proper lab/field equipment, and the final cost per lecture would be £195, or £25 a student. A class of eight students, each paying £32.90, therefore makes a profit of £68.20 for the university.

Under the new fees system, though, each lecture now costs each student £90, even if the average cost of educating a student will go up by around 25% to match government spending cuts. (Meaning equipment, admin and lecturing costs now in effect cost about £32 per student per lecture.) In other words, the university will now make £58 profit per student per lecture. The student, meanwhile, will be paying three times more for the same education.

This begs an important question. If it will only cost £33 to educate a student per lecture, but they pay £90, then where does the rest of the money go? 

Well, it could go on research... Often the job title 'lecturer' is misleading as many academics spend more of their time doing research rather than teaching students. Again, it's the government's fault, as universities get their money via something called the Research Assessment Exercise. This doles out money based on research output, or rather, research that gets published in peer reviewed journals. This may sound laudable from a distance, but like all target-based systems it distorts the system it's meant to help

Put simply, it doesn't matter if your research is actually any good - indeed, scientific research is based around small incremental steps and lots, and lots and lots of arguments, with the big bang discoveries only coming once in a while. This method certainly works but basing a funding system on it is rather foolish because peer review is not always consistent. Actual teaching, which is what students are paying for, is often put on the back-burner.

Then there is the sheer expense of running a university. You may have heard of those university vice chancellors who get paid more than the Prime Minister. But there is much more fat that needs trimming. Do universities really need so many press officers, HR departments, accommodation officers, Research Knowledge Transfer departments, customer relations managers, student services counsellors, administrators that only one department uses, additional payroll staff to make sure the extra staff get paid, community outreach officers, expensive web sites and glossy prospectuses, and advertising? 

No, because a good university only needs enough staff to teach well and do some quality research on the side, a shared pool of administrators, a small cadre of  accountants, enough staff to run the library and archives and someone to take charge who gets their hands dirty occasionally and does some teaching of their own. Everything else can be outsourced to the lowest bidder, or paid for by student unions that make more than enough money through their bars.

But universities as they presently stand are profoundly wasteful. Many occupy sprawling areas of unused greenfield or brownfield sites and an outsider would be shocked by the overstaffed security checkpoints, the massive pointless foyers and receptions, the huge, underused rooms and offices, the long corridors and how empty-looking even the most populated universities are. 

Then there are the white elephants - the in-house sport centres and swimming pools, the investment in modern art and installations, the vanity relaunches and re-brandings and all the estates staff and white collar non-jobs needed to run them all.

At the head of this unreformed gravy train is Oxford and Cambridge, overly blessed with huge, ancient buildings that cost a fortune to maintain, glutted at high table and very, very rich. The other self-designated 'elite' research universities in The Russell Group are another case in point - the University of Durham, for example, occupies an estate that, in total, consists of  227.8 hectares, or 1578 square feet per student. If students must pay, let them pay for education and not a property portfolio or the wine intake of sundry Oxbridge professors.

Universities that teach drama or film do need theatres, of course, while only a churl would question the need for trips abroad and world class science facilities where students and academics need them. Those that specialise in areas like archaeology and textile preservation, meanwhile, are perfectly entitled to their museums. But if we are going to have a debate on how much students are going to get fleeced by those who got a free university education, it might do us all well to ask just what that £9000 is going to be spent on.

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Alexander Hay

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