MeCCSA report on impact of HE policy

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 

This report presents evidence and provides analysis of the consequences of changes to government policy and funding structures in higher education in the UK[1], in the fields of semedia, communications and cultural studies. The removal of the block teaching grant for subjects in arts, humanities and social sciences, along with the implementation of undergraduate student fees of up to £9,000 in 2012/13, and the announcement that recruitment caps on student numbers will be lifted from 2015/16 have had significant consequences for the way higher education is conceptualized, organized and delivered across the UK. Despite changes to the funding system, the fields of media, communication and cultural studies remain popular with students: on the whole, student numbers remain high in these subject areas and the recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) revealed excellence of research in the majority of institutions.

The report is based on new independent research funded by the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association (MeCCSA) into the changing higher education environment and how it has impacted on the field of media, communications and cultural studies. Care was taken to ensure that the final sample included pre and post 1992 institutions as well the broad range of degrees (at undergraduate and postgraduate levels) as well as joint degrees and those that were theory dominant or practice dominant or a mixture of both, across the fields of  media, communications, film, television, journalism, broadcasting and cultural studies. It explores changes to admissions and recruitment processes and practices; strategic considerations around curriculum development and staffing and the consequences of the increasing importance being placed on the research ‘impact’ agenda in the context of these subject areas.

To date, headline figures point to healthy growth in the various subject areas under analysis. Between 1996/97  and 2012/13 full-time undergraduate students in these subjects rose by 400% to 35,490. Departments in these subject areas are, for the most part, recruiting well with application and enrolment numbers experiencing steady growth.  Since the introduction of higher fees in 2012/13, for departments with degree provision in the subject areas of media, communications and cultural:

  • 75% report application numbers have either stayed the same or increased
  • 44% report an increase in home/EU first-year undergraduate applications
  • 41% report an increase in home/EU first-year undergraduate enrolments .
  • 44% report an increase in international undergraduate applications
  • 46% report an increase in international undergraduate enrolments
  • 25% report an increase in home/EU postgraduate applications,
  • 60% report an increase in international postgraduate applications and enrolments. [2]

The field is also academically strong and at the forefront of both teaching and research development. Media and communications research were shown in the recently published results of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to be outstandingly strong in UK universities.  The published overview for the field notes that roughly two-thirds of the work assessed was world-leading or internationally excellent.  The overview report also draws attention to the exceptionally strong impact demonstrated by research in these fields. In commenting on research environments the sub-panel notes “the very high quality of research environments described, notably in setting out the nature of support for research, research training, and interdisciplinary work. The sub-panel was impressed by the richness of research environments and by the creative use of research funding by submitting units.”

However, although the subject areas under consideration remain popular and the research base is healthy, departments are also experiencing a range of problems. Many departments  report pressure on resources through increased Student:Staff ratios as popularity of the subject areas put departments under pressure to recruit ever higher numbers without corresponding rises in staff.  Furthermore, resources are being directed to marketing and recruitment activities that occupy an ever-more central part of the work of a department detracting from core academic activity. The constant stress on student recruitment has also led to changes to the range of provision with more courses introducing vocational elements that appeal to new applicants facing high levels of debt on graduation. These changes to curricula, while attractive to students in the short-term, may prove to be problematic in the long-term for students who have traditionally entered a wide range of occupations on graduation.  Furthermore, where students do enter the cultural industries a narrowly conceived skills-based training may well be quickly out-moded in a fast changing technological environment. There is also concern that as the market dictates which courses thrive and which die, student choice will be ever-more limited.

Thus, changes to higher education policy are impacting substantively on the subjects that we teach, on the relationship between the academic and the student; on the student’s attitude to knowledge alongside their desperate need to get a decently paid job at the end of their degree. The subject areas of MeCCSA may be flourishing  but a highly marketized and commodified higher education system also carries grave costs.

 


[1] Although the research included all institutions across the UK offering degrees in the subject areas covered by MeCCSA , the numbers of respondents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were too small to draw any nation-specific conclusions.

[2] Please note: these figures are based a sample of 136 departments in 112 institutions with a response rate of 34% (n= 45 departments)._

Posted by Einar Thorsen