Page last updated at 06:47 GMT, Saturday, 15 August 2009 07:47 UK

'No benefit' from tuition fees

Students have been charged for tuition for the last three years

Students are not benefiting from the extra money brought in by tuition fees, according to a leading academic.

Lectures are overcrowded and teaching hours limited, despite the extra income, says Manchester University vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert.

He says institutions' income is not sufficient to deal with rising student numbers and research demands.

The government insists record investment has left the university sector "stronger than ever".

'Too impersonal'

It had been hoped that the tuition fees introduced three years ago would generate valuable extra income for universities.

But according to Professor Gilbert, the additional money has failed to keep pace with the job which higher education is now expected to do.

BBC Radio 4, Saturday 15 August at 1100 BST
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He told BBC Radio 4's Beyond Westminster programme that universities had been fighting a long battle to maintain standards.

"I just think it is important for us to face up to the fact that higher education in the UK is under immense cost pressures, and that we have had decades of being asked to do more for less."

He admitted the student experience at his own institution was unsatisfactory, although efforts were being made to improve it.

"I am not satisfied with the quality of undergraduate education in the university," he said.

"We think it is too impersonal, it is not sufficiently interactive, that the curriculum has been developed a little incrementally and has not been profoundly thought through.

"The student experience can be considerably improved."

Higher Education Minister David Lammy
I don't recognise that there are profound problems across the system
David Lammy
Higher Education Minister

In a recent hard-hitting report, the Commons universities select committee accused universities across England of failing to safeguard educational standards.

The committee heard from students who felt they were not getting value for money in return for the annual tuition fees they now pay.

A recent audit of the quality of education carried out by the University of Bristol's student union found cause for concern.

"The amount of contact hours in terms of tutorials - especially in arts, humanities and social science - are not what they should be," said student union president Owen Peachey.

"We're talking about some finalists having two to three hours of contact time, and that's just not good enough."

Academic pressure

Bristol University acknowledged that contact hours for students in the Faculty of Arts range between four and 10 hours.

However, it pointed out that students are expected to spend 40 hours a week on academic study through private project work.

University of Manchester vice-chancellor Alan Gilbert
Alan Gilbert says universities must admit the scale of cost pressures

The university also said it had been pursuing a "massive capital investment programme" for a number of years, although it acknowledged the "significant and growing financial pressures on universities" meant it could not make as much progress as it would like.

The government rejected Professor Gilbert's criticism.

"Surveys that are done among students say there is an 81% satisfaction among students," said Higher Education Minister David Lammy.

"I don't recognise that there are profound problems across the system."

He argued that the government had invested heavily in higher education.

"Money is at a record high. We have got more students at university than ever before. The sector is stronger than it has ever been before."

Independent review

The government has already announced an independent review of tuition fees, with some vice-chancellors calling for the present cap of £3,500 to increase sharply.

More than half of university heads surveyed by the BBC said they wanted students to pay at least £5,000 per year or for there to be no upper limit.

An increase in fees would inject more money into the higher education system, but it would also saddle students with more debt.

Many graduates are already leaving college £20,000 in the red - through loans to cover tuition and living costs.

The question of what to do about tuition fees is expected to become a major political issue.

"It's gone beyond student politics," said Professor Jonathan Tonge, from the University of Liverpool's politics department.

"The row over any increase in tuition fees could have repercussions for electoral politics.

"It could enrage a large number of middle class parents who see their son and daughter saddled with debts that they may struggle to pay off for the rest of their lives."

Beyond Westminster is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 15 August at 1100 BST. Or listen again via the BBC iPlayer.

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