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Wednesday, 24 January, 2001, 17:39 GMT
'Crisis on horizon' in UK universities
Sir Michael Bett
Sir Michael Bett: "A remedy must be found"
The higher education sector is heading for crisis unless more young people can be recruited and retained in academia, a senior academic warns.

Giving evidence to the Commons education select committee, Sir Michael Bett said the measures taken by the government to address the issue had been "more sticking plaster than strategic".


In a few years' time there will be too few of the right people in higher education, unless a remedy is found right now

Sir Michael Bett
Sir Michael - author of a landmark report on higher education pay and conditions - said the sector's teaching profession was due for an exodus in 2005, when academics of the 1960s retired.

"There's a crisis on the horizon unless we get it right and bring the good young teachers and researchers through now, before 2005," he warned.

"You really do have to make sure you've got the right people teaching the right people in higher education.

"In a few years' time there will be too few of the right people in higher education, unless a remedy is found right now," Sir Michael said.

Poor pay

He also pointed to the problem of poor pay for academic staff.

David Packham
Mr Packham says academics' work has increased
He cited the example of a lecturer, who - by the age of 28 - would have qualified and started on a salary of 18,000.

He or she would compare themselves to their peers who had started on considerably more many years previously, Sir Michael said.

"It's a daunting prospect for bright young students who would like to stay in academia - debt and relativity provide a disincentive."

Changing role

Giving evidence to the committee alongside Sir Michael, David Packham, registrar of Aston University, highlighted the growing pressures on academic staff.

"Over the past 12 years student numbers in higher education have doubled," he said.

The new universities, in particular, had embraced the idea of widening participation, Mr Packham said, which often meant students needed more support.

Support staff in universities and colleges were also hard to retain, especially in areas such as information technology, which in turn added to the burden on academic staff.

These key workers had suffered much of the brunt of efficiency savings, Sir Michael said, and should be paid more.

Fear of debt

On the broader point of student retention, Sir Michael told MPs there was not a culture in this country of young people building up debt.

"It may be that elsewhere in the world this has become a way of life, but there is still, I think, a fairly puritanical streak here.

Professor John Beath
Professor Beath views higher education as "a public investment"
"For a lot of families the prospect of their son or daughter building up a debt of something like 10,000 to 12,000 by the age of 21 is a really daunting thing and will continue to contribute to the failure to retain."

Professor John Beath, the Head of School of Social Sciences at the University of St Andrews, urged MPs to see higher education as "a public investment".

"There are large public benefits that flow form higher education - they're much greater than the private benefits.

"If people are having to borrow, they look only at the private benefits and the public benefits," Professor Beath said.

Mr Packam pointed to the need for better information for prospective students.

Some, from families with no history of sending their children to university, were put off because they thought they had to pay tuition fees, he said.

Tuition fees

On Tuesday the committee heard how increasing numbers of students were being thrown out of university because they had not paid their tuition fees.

The vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, Professor Diana Green, said the number excluded for debt there had risen 17% since 1998, when fees were introduced, and fee-related debt has trebled.

There was "some evidence" that the same thing was happening at other universities in the UK, she added.

See also:

05 May 00 | Education
UK academics 'poorly valued'
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