Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The inequities of university funding

My job takes me to a wide range of universities across the UK. This morning, at the University of West London, a poster caught my eye. It was the sort of poster that every university displays, encouraging NSS participation, and giving “you said, we did” messages – a catechism for the 21st century university. This one had an interesting call and response:
You said: “Timetabling should take account of students’ lives”
We did: We altered class times to have 10am or later starts.
I know what you’re thinking – lazy students – but you should stop. UWL’s student body is very different to the stereotypical university cohort. There are people living at home with their families, because they can’t afford to go elsewhere. There are an awful lot of students with pre-school age children. University is just one part of complex and busy lives.
The W5 catechism

In this context, later starts make sense. It isn’t about allowing for a lie-in after a heavy night out. It’s about enabling childcare to be sorted; family duties to be done.

So jolly good, perhaps you say, well done UWL. But what’s this got to do with funding?

Here’s the rub. The move to later starting time for classes is going against the grain. 9am is the norm; some universities permit 8am starts in exceptional circumstances. And if some universities start at 9, and others start at 10, then the university that starts later has fewer teaching slots available for use than its peer. Or to put it another way, you’ll need more physical space to accommodate the same number of students/classes with a later start.

So the university with a non-traditional student body will need to spend more on teaching facilities than one whose students are able to start at 9. And guess what – this split between traditional and non-traditional student bodies correlates pretty well with league tables and published hierarchies of universities. So the better you are perceived to be, the more chance you have of recruiting ‘traditional’ students. And the less you’ll need to spend on teaching them.

This isn’t the fault of the universities that can start teaching at 9. I’ve tried to lead efficiency and rationalising projects on teaching timetables more than once: the cost of empty space is real, and if you can use it, it makes sense to use it.

But it does mean that a fees-alone funding regime contributes to maintaining a hierarchy. And in this market-focused age, that surely represents a market failure which justifies government intervention.

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