Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Universal student allowances could lead to increased fees and reduced teaching quality if Government policy does not change

The Government has announced that full time students will get a universal student allowance in 2012 as parental means testing is eventually abolished. It had planned this policy in the first half of this year but only announced now because it is about to lose an election. But the first substantial move won’t occur until 2011. The PM said universal allowances would assist Labour's goal of creating a "knowledge-led society", but two thirds of the people who will benefit from this policy - provided they can live off a student allowance - are too young to vote.

But the increased knowledge will go to lecturers, not students. The real problem is not what allowances students get, it is how tertiary study is funded. Whereas tertiary institutions were funded for study, they are now chasing the research dollar as effective full time students (EFTS) funding declines and teaching students takes a back seat. A fee maxima has been put in place limiting the size of the undergraduate fee increases to 5 percent a year, despite open ended enrolments. In 2008 there simply isn’t enough state funding to cover the cost of educating students, given the caps to fee increases. Tertiary institutions are cutting costs and dropping courses, with senior lecturers focusing on research and writing journal articles rather than teaching, so their institution can get a higher slice of the $250m annual performance based research fund (PBRF). So universities have become research facilities that teach with PBRF goals being more important than student progress. And as universities are collectively $230 million a year worse off in real terms than they would be if government funding had been maintained at the level of the early 1990s, you can see why universities take this research approach.

I wouldn’t be surprised if either teaching quality plummets or the 5 percent fee maxima is lifted and EFTS funding is reduced, increasing fees enormously if the research/ teaching funding balance is not rectified. Students will cop it. If extra money is going to students at underfunded universities, this means that students will be getting more money in allowances as they get lower quality education. That’s hardly creating a knowledge led society.

If the 5 percent maxima is not lifted, the PBRF targets will be the main focus of university lecturers who are already starting to care more about their research than the students they teach. Some will see students as a necessary nuisance. The Government is rewarding lecturers to research, while bribing students to vote for them. This has nothing to do with teaching or quality education.Perhaps this policy will be paid for with cancelled tax cuts in Labour's December mini-budget -if it wins the elction?

We need the Government to reward universities for being good teachers, not just good researchers. But it looks like students are going to have student allowances and increased fees so that universities can meet research goals. Meaning fees subsidise research. Students will have to work longer hours in paid jobs if they don’t want borrow to live. There is no guarantee that any fee increases will lead to increased teaching quality – in fact Government is encouraging students to contribute to their lecturers increased knowledge at the expense of their own because it underfunds tertiary study - and that sucks.

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