Subject choice plummets across the UK as the government fails universities

Sally Hunt shows the extent to which subject choice has shrunk in the UK as a result of government policy and rhetoric on HE.


Sally Hunt is the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU)

A report from the University and College Union (UCU) this morning revealed that students in the UK have far less choice when it comes to selecting what to study at university than they did just six years ago.

The number of full-time undergraduate courses on offer at UK universities has fallen by more than a quarter (27 per cent) since 2006, from 70,052 in 2006 to 51,116 in 2012 – despite an increase in student numbers.

The worst affected country in the UK is England, where fees have rocketed to as much as £9,000 a year, which has seen nearly one in three (31 per cent) university courses axed.

By way of contrast, Scotland, which has the most benign fee regime in the UK, has the smallest drop of just three per cent.

The report shows there have been large cuts across a range of courses, including government-protected STEM subjects, which has seen a 15 per cent drop in single subject courses.

Ministers and certain sections of the press have done a good job in talking down some courses, especially arts and humanities and social science degrees, which have now lost all state funding. Some universities may have become more risk adverse and are now afraid of running courses they fear won’t turn a profit.

It is particularly worrying in England. What do we say to people in the south-west, one of the most remote regions where seeking a university close to home can be hard enough as it is, who have nearly 50 per cent fewer courses to choose from?

The UK’s global academic reputation is built on the broad range of subjects available and on the freedom of academics to push at the boundaries and create new areas of study. 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?

For all the talk by the current administration of empowering students as consumers, this report exposes that students’ options have actually narrowed considerably. We should be providing a broad and balanced education for university students, not paring back provision.

As the Nobel Laureate, Sir Richard Roberts, notes in our report:

“As the chief scientific officer of a small biotech company I am looking to hire someone with good problem solving abilities, good critical thinking skills and an enthusiasm to learn more.

“Such skills are developed by exposure to many different topics during a university education, not by focusing in a single area.”

See also:

The shocking effect of Gove’s EMA axe: Youngsters skipping food to get to collegeSally Hunt, February 7th 2012

University applications down nine per cent, more for mature studentsSally Hunt, January 30th 2012

Coalition should heed Obama’s advice on higher education – not slash teaching grantsSally Hunt, January 25th 2012

Cameron needs to start backing our young people and universitiesSally Hunt, January 18th 2012

Government funding of university research at lowest proportion since 1900sSally Hunt, January 5th 2012

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