Are Our Universities Failing?

Universities are growing at a tremendous rate as the numbers of students in many disciplines mushroom. But is such growth a good thing?

Going for growth

Universities have increased in size and number over recent decades to become significant businesses and major employers in cities across the United Kingdom. They attract national and international students who pour money into local communities and the national economy via fees, living expenses, housing costs and, of course, social activities.

Universities spend hundreds of millions of pounds on capital projects to expand facilities as they vie with each other to attract ever more lucrative overseas students. But such explosive growth in the university sector is carried out with little regard for other forms of third-level education as they are squeezed to survive.

It is assumed that more and larger universities benefit everyone although how such a view has passed into mainstream thinking is a worry. Politicians and parents drive the expansion in an effort to engage as many young people as possible in the life changing benefits of education.

The main focus of universities, however, should be a careful balance of quality teaching for students to develop their critical thinking and leading edge research to further the body of knowledge in particular disciplines.

Time for change

In recent decades, however, the primacy of research and the economy has determined the direction of university education and created a desire to maximise profit. But with half the population now attending third level education it is time to ask whether or not universities provide a sufficient quality of teaching for students and value for money for taxpayers.

This question is particularly relevant at a time when years spent at university burdens students with thirty-year debts before the remaining balance is paid by the taxpayer. Government’s obsessive reliance on universities as drivers of the economy and the consideration of curriculum output in solely economic terms is damaging.

Universities are influenced by government policy and funding that encourages them to concentrate on the economy to the exclusion of other activities. They are encouraged to serve the economy by taking an active role in using their resources to create jobs, support business growth and improve productivity.

The long-term role of universities has lost out to short-term demands, as their original mission drifts from a focus on teaching students to recruiting students.  The increase in fees to over £9,000, planned interest rate rises, and the selling of loans to third parties is exactly what should not be happening.

Somewhere along the way universities have forgotten the primacy of students and moved towards the short-term and the expedient. Universities spend significant time and resource competing for students who find it difficult to afford an education that fails to deliver on its promise.

But there may hope of policy changes in the future as last year’s election saw a surge of political interest from young people eager to vent their frustration.

So, the current hyper-growth model of education is failing students and it is time to revisit the role universities should play in the twenty-first century.