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UK: More students, higher tuition… and fewer undergraduate courses

The University and College Union (UCU) has issued a report this month raising concerns about drops in the number of full-time undergraduate degree courses on offer at UK universities, particularly English institutions. Choice cuts: how choice has declined in higher education looks at UK degree-course provision over the period 2006-2012, and makes explicit links between these developments and cuts in UK public spending on higher education. In addition to giving a broad overview of the course provision landscape, a sample of “principal degree courses” (i.e. single subject degree courses) is also provided. Drawing on data from UCAS (the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Services) comparisons of the principal degree course numbers are made between the years 2006, 2010, 2011 and 2012 in the following fields: science, technology, education and mathematics (STEM); social studies; and arts and humanities groupings. UCU’s analysis finds that, overall, the number of full-time undergraduate courses decreased across the UK by 27% in the 2006-2012 timeframe, but to different extents in the four countries that comprise the United Kingdom. England saw the largest overall drop (-30.5%), followed by Northern Ireland (-23.7%), Wales (10.5%) and Scotland (-3.1%). Within England, there are also wide variations across the country’s regions with, for example, the South West seeing a drop of 47.1% over the period in question, but East Midlands only losing 1.4% of its course options. UCU notes that England will have the highest tuition rates of the four countries in 2012/13, but “is facing the biggest reduction in the number of undergraduate courses”. Scotland, the report points out, sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, with “the most benign fee regime” and much lower levels of course cutting. In terms of drops in principal subject degree courses, Wales led the way with a decrease of 23.7%. England registered a loss of 14% of its principal subject degree courses, follow by Scotland (-7.5%) and Northern Ireland (-6.7%). There was also considerable variation across the four countries in terms of the fields (STEM, social sciences or arts and humanities) in which these decreases occurred. What does this mean for UK higher education? The UCU provides perspectives from four professors—including Nobel Laureate Sir Richard Roberts—who collectively voice considerable concern about limiting students’ (and by extension the UK’s) intellectual options through shrinking course choice. University and College Union (UCU)