University lecturers and their highly paid Vice-Chancellors seem far more focused on their own remuneration packages than looking after their customers, the students. Businesses that ignore their customers for too long end up going bust. Businesses that charge customers for products they don’t supply should not be surprised to be sued.
Our universities have a global reputation for excellence and high standards. Some of it is deserved, but too much of it is not. The report I wrote last September: Timebomb: How the University cartel is failing Britain’s students, published by UK2020, explored the value gap in detail.
Some of what we discovered was shocking, and Russell Group universities are amongst the main offenders. A few examples help to set the scene. Grade inflation is rampant: in 2016 73 per cent of graduating students received a 2:1 qualification or better, compared to 47 per cent in 1995. During the 1960s, academics spent 55 per cent of their time teaching with the balance on research. This has reversed: now teaching represents just 40 per cent of their work. Almost 70 per cent of student work takes over two weeks to be marked, a lot given it represents around 10 per cent of the academic year.
This lack of teaching is perhaps unsurprising, given that on average our universities teach for just 23 weeks a year, with only 11 contact hours per week. This compares with 28 weeks in the US, and 33 at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, which I visited recently.
Education is one of our growing national exports and can increase further, with a huge potential market, in particular for Chinese students. But why would they come if they feel they have to pay more for less? Worse, will they come if they must pay even when the teachers refuse to teach?
Dissatisfaction amongst the 700-plus students we surveyed for our report was profound, and centred on the quality and lack of teaching. A typical comment was: “Definitely not good value. Tutor didn’t attend half of the tutorials, doesn’t reply to any emails and didn’t want to help me with the only essay of the term, which I was struggling with.”
Lord Myners was until 2016 the chairman of governors of the London School of Economics, an icon in the capital. He told Parliament: “I have found university professors’ commitment in terms of hours spent working with students to be extraordinarily low..I discovered that [they] teach for only 68 hours a year.”
I am pleased that the new regulator, the Office for Students, will be focusing on both grade inflation and teaching quality at universities, as I recommended in Timebomb that it should. It will also attempt to tackle the excessive pay packages of many Vice-Chancellors. This is long overdue. Universities asked for and received financial independence from government with the increase in tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012. Money has poured into their coffers, and – surprise, surprise — Vice-Chancellors’ pay then soared.
Staff in thousands of businesses around the country have seen their pension arrangements change to defined contribution schemes in recent years, due to unsustainable deficits in company schemes. I cannot think of any that have gone on strike. Most find a fair way through a difficult challenge.
The Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) is the biggest pension fund in the country, with over £60 billion of assets, and is believed to have the biggest deficit, amounting to some £6 billion. We are only due to find out the actual scale of the crisis by June. This deficit has not arisen overnight, but over a number of years. As the biggest scheme, the USS’s administration costs should benefit from economies of scale, but instead they rose 13 per cent last year and are well above the average amongst their peers. Thirteen people at USS earned over £500,000 in 2016, with two receiving over £1 million.
If lecturers want to keep the same pension benefits, they will have to pay for them or persuade their university employers to find cost savings so they can increase their employer contributions. Or they may have to work a bit longer before retiring. Academics should negotiate all this rather than have a strop, and walk out on strike.
Perhaps lecturers could teach a few more hours per week, so improving efficiency and reducing costs for the university. The win -win benefit would be happier customers.