A squeeze on higher education funding means that the University is considering cutting courses and modules that only have a small number of students on them. I want to make sure that the people making these decisions understand the full implications of their choices.
As part of my role as the Postgraduate Education Officer, I sit on four Learning and Teaching Quality Committees (LTQC) – one for each faculty. These panels consists of a host of academics and University executives who review the courses and modules that UEA offer.
It’s no secret that, under the current government, higher education is feeling a squeeze on their funding. Because of this, the LTQCs are reviewing which courses are financially viable, and considering cutting modules and courses that are under-recruiting students.
While I am sympathetic to the difficult financial situation the University is in, I want to make sure that the people making these decisions are fully aware of the implications of their choices.
Threats to innovative thinking
UEA considers itself to be at the cutting-edge of research, and teaching at the University has always stemmed from the research expertise of the academics here. This puts UEA in a brilliant position where they can forge new courses based on the new research its staff are carrying out.
Thing is, it takes a few years for courses to become established.
This is exactly what happened with the Creative Writing MA. UEA was the first University in the UK to offer a master’s degree in Creative Writing, and its success meant that other Universities began running them, too. Today, the UEA MA in Creative writing is still one of the most highly regarded Creative Writing degrees you can get.
But, in its first year, it famously had one student – the then-not-so-famous Ian McEwan. Can you imagine if the University held this kind of review in 1971, and decided that teaching creative writing simply wasn’t financially viable?
I’m concerned that if we shut down these courses and cut off these modules, we’re going to shut off the next generation of cutting edge-researchers. The University may allow two years for new courses to pick up numbers, but if it’s an entirely new discipline, it’s going to need longer.
The niche courses are on the chopping block
It’s often the particularly niche courses and modules which have a small number of student on them – and this means that this review is putting the specialised modules and master’s on the chopping block.
I’m concerned that cutting these will not only have a major implications for the future of UEA’s research community, but will lead to the gentrification of master’s courses: only the Universities which can afford to run these courses will continue to do so. If we continue down this road, only places like Oxbridge will afford to run specialised courses, and this will just mean that privileged students are (once again) given more opportunities.
Students study at MA and MSc level because they want to specialise – they need to, if they want an academic career – and if you cut the niche master’s courses, you effectively cut them out of a PhD.
The University has done some research on this in the past, but their investigation has broadly considered faculty-wide data and only limited to alumni continuation rates. They don’t look into how many students from specialised master’s courses continue on to do a PhD here or elsewhere.
I’m asking the University to consider each course on an individual basis, and factor this in to their decision-making process.
Threats to interdisciplinary study
‘Interdisciplinary’ is a bit of a buzzword in higher education – so it’s ironic that these reviews threaten courses that hover over two (or more) schools. Many students opt to take courses with minor variants - ones which allow them to take modules borrowed from other courses. These students will qualify with a slightly different master’s, even though most of their teaching is the same as those on the core degree.
Cutting these kinds of degrees won’t save the University much money at all. They’re running the modules anyway – just allowing students from other schools to take them. I could bang on about the benefits of interdisciplinary study for pages, here, but to stick to the financials I think it’s safe to say that cutting these courses won’t save the University much money. They’re running the modules anyway.
I think the fact that the University is even considering cutting these types of courses betrays a lack of understanding about what these courses entail.
It’s not about the £££
It upsets me that I even have to write this kind of blog. What master’s degrees the University offers should be an academic decision, not a financial one.
When we let money come into the equation, what quickly becomes apparent is that the only Universities which will be able to keep specialist courses open will be the richer ones – Oxbridge – and this will just give privileged students yet another opportunity that the rest of us don’t have.
I accept that money is a reality, but I will do everything in my power to stop courses and modules with academic value from getting axed because of finances.