Three-D Issue 22: Impact of HE policy on work, practices and departmental constitution

90005Giannina Warren
Goldsmiths, University of London

The last few years have witnessed some dramatic shifts in the funding structures and government policy related to Higher Education (HE) in the UK. Since 2011/12 Universities have had the block teaching grant removed from arts, humanities and social science subjects and students have been charged up to £9k per year for an undergraduate degree programme.

The surprise announcement by George Osborne in December 2013 that the cap on student places, intact since 1994, would be removed in 2016 has put further pressure on HE institutions to think more strategically about recruiting and attracting ‘students-as-consumers’ in this highly competitive environment. This has led to speculation about universities applying institutional pressure on programmes to shift towards a more vocational curriculum as a way of adapting to ‘market demand’, and placing a greater emphasis on teaching at the expense of research. Further, higher undergraduate fees and the removal of the block grant have resulted in an increased reliance on enrollment numbers as a rather precarious way of implementing departmental fiscal planning, leading some universities to begin considering their long-term staffing needs and academic offer.

While overall HE enrollment numbers appear to have rallied after initial dips post-2010/11, many subject areas, including those under the umbrella of media, communications and cultural studies, seem to be in decline relative to STEM subjects and other subjects deemed to be of strategic importance by the government. However, data provided by UCAS and HESA does not adequately capture what is really happening in these fields, as categorical subject groupings do not accurately reflect the programmes that fall under the MeCCSA remit.

We need a better barometer of what’s actually happening in our field. Some of the more pressing concerns are whether departments are coming under increased institutional pressure to change their degree programmes – to adapt to (often unproven) student demand or respond to so-called ‘efficiency requirements’ that could translate into teaching more and more students with less and less resources. As the National Student Survey and the countless league tables gain in institutional relevance in a competitive market-place what does this mean for media, communications and cultural studies? Further, there are questions about how the expectation to expand student numbers might impact the research time available to academics, and the overall research climate of departments as the funding associated with REF ever more diminishes. Finally, there is an opportunity to better understand both the current fiscal challenges and planning strategies within media, communications and cultural studies departments in order to identify future opportunities to engage in debates about the changing needs of the HE sector overall.

For these reasons we need to gather and analyse information relating to student applications, departmental strategies and institutional pressures within our subject areas of media, communications and cultural studies.

A MeCCSA-funded research study is presently underway with the results to be distributed to members and discussed at the AGM 2015. The intent is to identify possible challenges within the sector and alert members to possible ways of addressing them. The findings may also be relevant in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, and leveraged to draw political attention to the main issues facing our subject areas in particular as well as the HE sector in general. This could have the added benefit of putting pressure on HEFCE to address our concerns while raising the profile of our field in the process.

An online survey was recently distributed primarily to Heads of Departments and secondarily to Administration Heads of nearly 300 departments encompassing media studies, journalism, film and television, publishing, communications and other closely related fields in HE institutions across the UK. The data gleaned from these surveys will be complemented by 10-12 in depth interviews with HODs to better understand what the figures actually mean. If you have any questions about the study, or would like to participate, please contact Natalie Fenton at or Giannina Warren at

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