The University and Colleges Union published a shocking report this week showing that since 2006 an enormous 31% of undergraduate courses at universities in England have been cut. Across the UK, the figure stands at a 27% drop in courses available, but England is the worst hit area, probably due to soaring tuition fees and deep cuts to the higher education budget. This assumption is supported by the fact that Scotland, which has the most benign fee regime, has lost a mere 3% of courses over the same time period.

UK Falling Behind

The striking contrast in course provision between the two areas confirms leading educators’ fears that tuition fees and cuts to university budgets are leading to a swift deterioration in the quality of higher education in England. Leading academics featured in the report detail their fears that the UK will swiftly fall behind its international competitors, with Professor Donald Braben commenting “I fear we are going backwards…stagnation will follow”. Others pointed out that the enormous rise in tuition fees is prompting the commercialisation of higher education in the UK, leading decisions about course provision and availability to be made on financial grounds and student numbers, rather than on the basis of academic value. This view is supported in the report by Professor Philip Schofield, who warns that “The importance of a course…is not a function of the number of students who are prepared to take it.”

Regional Subject Lottery

The report also reveals that this sharp drop in the number of degree courses available has lead to very sparse subject choices being available in some areas of the country. In the East and North East of England for example, it is no longer possible for students to read French or German studies at university. With many more students now choosing to study closer to home to cut costs, this is a serious blow to higher education, as a geographical lottery will begin to ensue to determine which courses are available to which pupils. In the South West, for example, a shocking 47% of courses have been axed, leaving students who wish to stay near home in that area faced with a hugely depleted choice of degree subjects to study.

This dearth of subject choices in pockets of the country could put the UK on very shaky ground compared to its international higher education competitors, as UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt pointed out: “If we want to compete globally, we simply cannot have areas of the country where students do not have access to a broad range of courses.” This could in turn lead to some of the UK’s best and brightest students rejecting soaring tuition fees at home in favour of studying abroad. As Professor Schofield warned, “it will make UK universities a much less attractive proposition for both home and international students, who value the depth and diversity of our research and teaching.”

Lost Talent

The sad likelihood is that this could eventually cause some of the brightest minds of our younger generations to take their talents elsewhere, or perhaps even to end up eschewing university altogether. As Hunt demanded, “how many potential Nobel Prize winners will not see the light of day because the choices that were available to previous generations are simply not there now?”