Three-D Issue 23: The Cinderella in the system

92085 92082Giannina Warren &
Natalie Fenton
Goldsmiths, University of London



In the summer of 2014 MeCCSA funded research into the changing higher education environment experienced by media, communications and cultural studies departments. Through a survey and interviews1 the research explores and evaluates changes to admissions and recruitment processes and practices; strategic considerations around curriculum development and staffing and the consequences of the ever-increasing importance being placed on the research ‘impact’ agenda for departments in these fields. The study examines how the new expectations around income generation, market-driven competition, and the adaptation to ‘student demand’ and ‘efficiency requirements’ have influenced the overall teaching and research environment within departments that fall under MeCCSA’s remit. The report is still being drafted but below we offer an indication of the emerging findings.

Background and issues

The study was undertaken against a backdrop of the recent dramatic shifts in government policy and funding structures in UK higher education. The removal of the block teaching grant for subjects in arts, humanities and social sciences, along with the implementation of undergraduate student fees up to £9,000 in 2012/13, and the surprise announcement that government-imposed recruitment caps on student numbers will be lifted from 2015/16 have introduced a sea-change in the way higher education is conceptualized, organized and delivered in England.2

Alongside these changes student numbers have increased across the board, with overall participation increasing from 3.4% in 1950, to 8.4% in 1970, 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000 In 2013, 496,000 (nearly 40% of young people) got a full-time place at university resulting in a total higher education student population of about 2.5 million (Bolton 2012, Coughlan 2013). Latest UCAS figures for the most recent 2014/15 intake shows a further increase of around 3% (UCAS 2014). Students studying media and journalism courses represent a small but mighty portion of this growth: in 1996/97 there were approximately 7,605 full-time undergraduate students in these subjects and by 2012/13 that number had risen to 35,490 – a 4-fold increase. This does not include the further 30,485 students enrolled in ‘Mass Communication and Documentation’ degrees in 2012, a subject area that also includes librarian and information services alongside media and communications (Golding and Murdock 2014).

The changes to HE funding were justified as representing a substantial saving to the public purse and ensuring the health and sustainability of a viable mass higher education system. However, the outcome has been an increase in public spending due to the estimated non-repayment on student loans. Original estimates pegged the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge – the estimated portion of loan outlay to students that will never be repaid – at 28%. This has increased several times, and is now sitting as high as 45% and still climbing (Morgan 2014), representing billions of lost income for future governments and a funding system that would seem set to implode. Student debt is skyrocketing, with the first cohort for whom full fees were a reality set to graduate with income-contingent loan repayments that require paying for the next 30 years. There is wide-spread concern that this will lead students to view their education in purely instrumental terms; seeking degrees that provide the highest rate of return for their very expensive investment. This is leading to an ever-more highly regulated, bureaucratic and audit-driven system underpinned by ever-increasing frustration and some confusion by those dealing with the consequences within the sector (McGettigan 2013).

The institutional uncertainty that has resulted from the rapid implementation of these policies has also seen many HEIs3 losing £40-50 million from their annual budgets within just a few years (McGettigan 2013). UCAS’s report for 2013 recruitment shows that the bounce-back in overall recruitment after the introduction of student fees was unevenly distributed between institutions with changes of between minus 20 per cent and plus 20 per cent being common (UCAS 2013). This unevenness is further exacerbated by fluctuations across subjects within institutions. The general trend is to the benefit of larger, wealthier institutions (i.e. those with turnovers three times the mean of the rest) (McGettigan 2013).

Moreover, universities are now experiencing the effects of a wholesale marketisation of education, and the results at ground level are unsettling. Brown (2010) identified reasons why the marketisation of education, combined with reduced levels of spending per student, could have a negative overall effect on the quality of education provided:

  • a reduction in the amount of learning due to changes in the size and nature of the curriculum;
  • less contact time with overworked academic staff;
  • higher staff/student ratios in lectures in seminars;
  • more students working during term-time;
  • a growing tendency for degrees to be valued for their ‘exchange’ value, particularly in the labour market, rather than their ‘use’ value to the student;
  • students adopting a more instrumental approach to their education, putting more focus on work that will get them higher marks;
  • and finally a diversion of resources away from areas that might improve teaching in favour of those that might better benefit marketing and recruitment such as the development of the estate and promotional media (Brown and Carasso, 2013)

Our research suggests that some of these concerns are beginning to be realised.

Manifestations of the market

Marketing is one area of the higher education sector that appears to be growing; in January 2012, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reported that between 2008 and 2011, numbers of marketing and PR staff had increased by five per cent, whilst reductions were seen in other administrative staff overall (Brown and Carasso 2013). This leads to a concern that universities will ultimately pay more attention to style over substance; focusing on the ‘student experience’ by investing more resources in the non-academic aspects of the university – those that make a better first impression on those attending open days, or in glossy photos in publicity material. McGettigan (2013) warns of bigger spends going towards the beautification of campuses, building new leisure facilities and upgrading student accommodation, all at the expense of investments in the academic offer.

The literature also points to a growing ‘employability agenda’ creeping into the curricula of arts, social sciences and humanities courses, representing a ‘narrow, utilitarian vocationalism’, where ‘universities become the training wings of industry, supported by the taxpayer, but paid for increasingly by the students themselves’ (Walton 2011:20). The courses that will be financially viable in the future are the ones that student ‘purchasers’, saddled with skyrocketing debt loads, think are most likely to generate for them higher earnings after they graduate. Student anxieties over debt lead to calls for curricula in the field to ever more closely match jobs in the industry.

This posits students as consumers, leading them to demand value for money and complain often and loudly when the ‘product’ they have purchased does not quite meet (what they perceive to be) their needs. The ever increasing attention paid to commercial league tables and exercises like the National Student Survey (Brown and Carasso 2013) only add to this trend. These performance indicators and league tables function as powerful market currencies (Brown and Carasso 2013) – with universities investing increasing resources in their effort to move up rankings and hence improve their value proposition in a competitive market.

The research points towards an institutional acceptance of a fiercely competitive approach within higher education with the pursuit of improved rankings to attract and retain students and pull in the international research stars who can in turn attract external research funding and enhance REF scores. The last minute poaching of students lured with promises of better accommodation or free gifts; bidding wars for staff that bring inequalities to pay systems and conditions of service, and increasing importance being placed on those who can best promote the institution rather than those with the most critical or challenging research agendas now appear, anecdotally at least, to be commonplace.


Academic Agonies?

Academics have been barely mentioned in successive government policy documents on higher education (Brown and Carasso 2013). Yet it is they who are the most squeezed by the demands of new student-consumers and have to answer to management directives to become more efficient, productive and therefore more profitable (McGettigan 2013). The onus placed on recruitment, audit measures and the acquisition of research funding, coupled with a permanent uncertainty over job security, makes for an unrelenting and hostile environment in which they must continue to prevail, for the good of their students, and love for the academy.

Academics are coping with ever-shifting goal posts, increased managerial scrutiny, enormously demanding workloads, and the pressure to become no more than market shills for university administrations concerned above all else with ranking highly on the NSS and league tables and ‘putting bums on seats’. For the love of subject and sector academics struggle on, reticent to revolt against larger institutional forces that place them in ever-more precarious positions, their livelihoods compromised through decreasing salaries and threats over pensions often leading to low morale. And while student attitudes become ever more instrumental as they demand better ‘value for their money’, the academics are doing their best to provide a quality educational experience under increasingly difficult circumstances with apparently precious little reward.


Subject buoyancy

Despite the evident issues that this research is starting to reveal it is also important to note that the figures point to a healthy growth in the various subject areas under analysis (these include media, communications, film, television, journalism, broadcasting and cultural studies). Application and enrolment numbers continue to be buoyant, and courses remain popular with students. A healthy majority of departments in our field (75%) report that application numbers have either stayed the same or increased since the introduction of fees in 2012/13. Undergraduate applications in particular appear robust: 44% report that there has been an increase in home/EU first-year applications with 41% reporting an increase in enrolments. 44% report an increase in international undergraduate applications (with enrolments up at 46% of universities surveyed). While fewer universities (25%) report an increase in home/EU postgraduate applications, 60% report an increase in the more lucrative international postgraduate applications and enrolments.

It appears that despite some of the negative publicity and attitudes that have plagued media, cultural and communication studies in the past (Curran 2013) departments in these subject areas are, for the most part, recruiting well. This is clearly to be welcomed. Despite the longstanding perceived public and social stigma aimed towards the subject areas of media, communications and cultural studies as ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects (Curran 2013), lacking in academic viability and credibility, our subject areas, on the whole, appear to be continually successful, remaining popular with students and bringing in fees for their institutions.

However, popularity does not account for the whole picture, as many academics working in these subject areas also reveal a story premised on hard-working and high-recruiting yet often under-resourced departments, no less prone to uncertainty and battling a lack of institutional credibility, recognition, and value. Covering relatively new disciplinary areas, these are departments that have neither time nor tradition on their side. Hence, in a constantly changing and volatile policy environment, with targets ever shifting, many of the departments in these fields expressed anxiety rather than confidence about the future.

Furthermore 30% of departments also reported decreases in recruitment particularly in home/EU undergraduate applications and enrolment. The majority of these were post ’92 institutions with a predominantly theoretical course offering. These departments also appear to be retracting — nearly all have closed more programmes than they have opened in recent years, and 75% have also experienced budget and staff cuts.

So, although our subject areas are in general growing and the departments covered by MeCCSA, on the whole, represent a success story for the new policy environment, this research is revealing a picture of over-worked, over-burdened staff, expected to do increasingly more with less. It tells the story of changing priorities at institutions, a shift in values from the pursuit of knowledge for the public good to the relentless quest for money to survive and grow in a cut-throat competitive environment. Despite, the relative buoyancy of student numbers, 63% of survey respondents indicated that their budgets had been cut in the last four years.

Despite the myriad challenges, academics working in the field remain resilient, focused on the possibilities that working in a popular and ever-changing discipline provides. However, even the most resilient and tenacious academics are no match for a larger system that is unrelenting in its move towards wholesale marketization. While this research does not speak towards larger trends in UK higher education, the emergent findings do illustrate, at subject level, some of the effects of the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last few years. Those on the ground speak of the increased commoditisation and instrumentalisation of education, the frenetic recruitment environment and the numbing bureaucracy that endless audit measures and a heightened ranking culture have created. Academics often expressed fear that the only way to stay in the field is to adapt to the ever-shifting expectations foisted upon them by questionable and ill-thought out government policies.

By shedding light on the emerging trends and first-hand experiences of those working within the sector, the research report hopes to highlight the necessity to not only better understand the ramifications of HE policy changes on different subject areas and different types of higher education institutions but also the necessity to do something about it.

The interim findings of this research will be presented to the AGM at the MeCCSA 2015 annual conference in Northumbria. The full report will be available in Spring 2015.


1. This snapshot study employed qualitative and quantitative methods to explore baseline data on applications and enrolments in the subject areas represented by MeCCSA as well as capture the personal experiences of academics working in the fields of media, communications and cultural studies in higher education and to identify commonalities and trends that might be experienced within the field as a whole. The survey was sent via email to 136 contacts. A total of 46 surveys were completed between July 8 and August 13, 2014, representing a 34% response rate. Care was taken to ensure that the final data set included an adequate spread of Universities across the UK with a nearly even split between pre- and post-1992 institutions, large and small, and those with an emphasis on theoretical or practical or theory/practice combined degree programmes. 12 in-depth interviews were also undertaken with a selection of respondents to explore issues in more depth.

2. The funding of higher education and student fee system differs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Universities in Northern Ireland charge up to £3,685 for tuition fees to students coming from Northern Ireland and non-UK EU countries in 2014-15. Students who normally live in England, Scotland and Wales are charged £9,000 to study at Queen’s University Belfast and £6,000 to study at University of Ulster. Scottish domiciled students and non-UK EU students studying full time in Scotland are not required to pay tuition fees if studying for a first degree or equivalent. But students from the rest of the UK studying in Scotland will pay variable fees up to £9,000. Welsh Universities and Colleges charge up to £9,000 a year but students from Wales only pay £3,685 a year wherever in the UK they choose to study.

3. Comparing HEFCE grant funding data from 2010/11 through 2014/15, the following universities have seen a loss of over £40 million per year (in order of value of losses): University of Wolverhampton, University of Westminster, De Montfort University, University of Portsmouth, University of Greenwich, University of Liverpool, University of Nottingham, Northumbria University Newcastle, University of Birmingham, Kingston University, Nottingham Trent University, Liverpool John Moores University, Leeds Metropolitan University, Teesside University, University of Central Lancashire, University of the West of England, Bristol, Sheffield Hallam University, University of Leeds, Plymouth University, University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, Open University.


Bolton, Paul. “Education: Historical Statistics.” House of Commons Library. 27 November 2012.
Brown, Roger (ed.) (2010) Higher Education and the Market, London: Routledge
Brown, Roger, and Helen Carasso (2013) Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge
Coughlan, Sean (2014) “Record Numbers Enter University.” BBC News. Accessed September 7, 2014.
Curran, James (2013) “Mickey Mouse Squeaks Back: Defending Media Studies.” Three-D, Issue 20, 2013.
Golding, Peter and Murdock, Graham (forthcoming) “Hiding in the Light”. In Media Studies in Question: The Career of a Contested Formation.
McGettigan, Andrew (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press.
Morgan, John (2014) “‘Massive’ Budget Hole Predicted as RAB Charge Rises.” Times Higher Education. Accessed September 9, 2014.
UCAS (2013) 2013 Application Cycle: End of Cycle Report. UCAS Analysis and Research, December 2013. Available at: %202013%20End%20of%20Cycle%20Report.pdf
UCAS (2014) Statistical releases for 29 August 2014, Available at:
Walton, J. (2011) ‘The idea of the university.’ In Freedman, D and Bailey, M. (eds.) The Assault on Universities: A manifesto for resistance, pp.15-26.

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