UK Higher Education Faces Huge Risks Say British Academy

There are huge risks to Higher Education, one of the UK’s most successful and thriving sectors, from the scale and pace of change currently taking place, warned Sir Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy in his annual address to the Academy’s Annual General Meeting yesterday. Young Academic learnt this week that the events of the last yeat could have serious repercussions on the higher education industry – yet more worrying student news as pupils prepare to take a much needed break.

Referring to the publication of last month’s Higher Education White Paper, Sir Adam said; “It is not surprising that it has had a very mixed reception. One disappointment is that the White Paper does not set out a clear and ambitious vision for Higher Education, nor look ahead to the longer-term. Its focus is on pressing issues around funding structures and attempts to increase competition in tuition fees for undergraduate courses.

“We must take care to maintain the supply of postgraduates and address their need for support.”


He said there remained many areas that were uncertain; “Will the new system keep UK Higher Education at the international leading edge? What will be the impact on student demand? Will there be increased demand for some courses at the expense of others? Will ‘student choice’ improve quality? Will it undermine academic authority – for example, leading to grade inflation as students and institutions seek to ensure everyone gets the maximum outcome for their investment? Will access to the humanities and social science disciplines be narrowed? There are many questions to which we do not know the answers, and it is natural for many to have concerns.”

However, Sir Adam refused to be overly pessimistic; “It is tempting – but in my view too many have succumbed too easily – to see disaster in the simple fact that humanities and social sciences are to lose their direct teaching funding from next year. But these changes apply to all disciplines. Every subject is losing its core subsidy, with direct funding only remaining for courses with high costs (e.g. laboratory or clinical).

“The majority of humanities and social science courses – which previously were receiving per student some £6,000-£7,000 in annual funding and tuition fees – will now be able to charge up to £9,000 a year. Provided student demand keeps up (and there were 200,000 unsuccessful applicants last year), humanities and social science courses will be  increasingly desirable to universities as offerings.”

Sir Adam concluded with a plea for more attention to be paid to postgraduate provision; “We must take care to maintain the supply of postgraduates and address their need for support.  We must ensure that the new system does not unintentionally act as a deterrent to postgraduate study.  Graduating with a larger amount of debt from undergraduate study may put off the next generation of postgraduates, especially the less well-off.  Far too little attention has been paid by government to this potential threat.

“Many students graduating with combined tuition and maintenance debts of as much as £40,000 after three years – roughly twice current levels – are going to pause before embarking on even one, let alone three or four further years of study.  If this issue is not satisfactorily addressed, the future renewal of the academic profession could be seriously put at risk.”

The Annual General Meeting elected 38 leading academics at 17 universities around the UK as new Fellows of the British Academy.  In addition, 15 Corresponding Fellows were elected – Fellows not resident in the UK – and Professor Sir Richard Brook, Director of The Leverhulme Trust, and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, were awarded Honorary Fellowships.

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