University finances are fiendishly complicated, and don’t always work in the way one might imagine. When it comes to how much money is spent on teaching, tuition fees are collected centrally, and allocated based on how much money the teaching costs to deliver. Some subjects cost more to deliver than the £9,000 fee paid by students. Many cost less.
Epigram recently published an examination of what departments were spending per student, and drew the conclusion that a level of cross-subsidy was taking place which students were largely unaware of. This is accurate.
An email by the University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students attempted to cast doubt on our story, claiming the figures are inaccurate. This is not entirely unwarranted – our method didn’t account for potential differences in the benefit that different students get from services funded out of a central pot, rather than their department. Spending on libraries, sport, the health centre, student counselling, and other services may benefit students in some departments more than others. Similarly, some budget is allocated to Faculties rather than the department, and this information is not included.
Our figures did not provide a picture that is, overall, inaccurate or misleading
Epigram is happy to concede that the method we used did exclude some nuances. This is necessary because the way that money is spent at universities does not make a breakdown by subject possible, not without data collection and analysis that would employ a number of people for some time. Let us be clear – even the University may not have the full data, and it certainly has not been shared.
What we will not concede is that our figures provide a picture that is, overall, inaccurate or misleading. If the University can publish figures showing that, for example, Chemistry does not cost substantially more to teach than English, then we will retract our story. But this is simply not the case. Whilst the figures quoted in our article could not and do not provide the whole story, they give a good rough idea of the extent to which cross-subsidy exists, and they paint a broadly accurate picture of what the reality is.
In fact, for many, it will not have come as much of a surprise. Almost every university in the country is doing the same thing – some courses do cost substantially more to deliver than others. Current tuition fee levels are set to support the overall costs of teaching at multidisciplinary universities, which vary hugely subject by subject. Figures which are readily available show that our data, with the exception of the Classics miscalculation, also corresponds with national averages for how much each course costs to run, highlighting just how indicative our numbers were.
Epigram got the information out into the public domain, but we did not argue that cross-subsidising was a bad thing. Indeed, as my last editorial and Oliver Carter-Esdale’s Comment piece (Epigram, 24/11) both made clear, we are not calling for cross-subsidising to stop, or for Dentistry students to pay higher fees.
The real problem, and the reason for the amount of interest that the article provoked, isn’t necessarily cross-subsidy at all, but underlying concerns exacerbated by rapid growth in student numbers.
It is no coincidence that the Comment piece, ‘Bristol: “Love the city, hate the university”’, which spoke about dissatisfaction surrounding the rise in student numbers, is our second most-read article of 2014-15, only behind our last front page piece. It resonated with that serious feeling of discontent among much of the student body, reflected in low student satisfaction scores for a university as prestigious as Bristol for years, but which has appeared to grow recently as student numbers have rocketed. Accommodation problems occur year after year, with some first-years having to share bunk-beds or even sleep in cars this autumn after provision did not grow at the rate of expansion, affecting students across Faculties.
The reason for the interest the article provoked is underlying concerns exacerbated by rapid growth in student numbers
On the academic side, however, student number growth at the University has been particularly high in the Faculty of Arts, where, by no coincidence, satisfaction expressed in National Student Surveys (NSS) has been particularly low. It is important to note that Arts students are not dissatisfied at every university. But Arts students at Bristol increasingly feel like they’re getting a raw deal. Overall satisfaction is down. Class sizes have gone up, promises to maintain staff-student ratios have not been met, and more students means it can take academics longer to return work. Meanwhile, print credit is rarely made available, while needing to purchase books studied, though not technically compulsory, is the reality for most Arts students as the library rarely stocks enough copies.
Arts students find this particularly unfair now that they know less money is already spent on their departments. This is not to say that the University is unaware or does not have action plans in place, but so far, they have not worked, and they should not have been expected to given the pressures brought about by the unprecedented rise in numbers.
We hope that discussions about many of these important issues continue, but that they focus more on this poorly-managed rise in student numbers, which clearly appears to be at the root of many of the grievances expressed.
The University’s full response to the article is on page 5 of the latest issue, or online here.