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“We were angry that we hadn’t been told; frustrated that the money had been withdrawn; upset that such a small amount of money was being taken away; confused and distressed at the suddenness of the withdrawal…”
So said one English and Creative Writing student in response to the news that the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) has cut funds for research students to travel to conferences.
They weren’t alone. PhD students across the faculty expressed dismay after it was revealed that the money, for students not funded by research councils, would no longer be available.
“We were informed by the head of research in our department via email that the funding had been cut,” said another student, who wished to remain anonymous. None of the students SCAN spoke to wanted their names to be used. “I think it is terrible, I understand that the current general financial climate is bad for universities but there is very little funding available for research students as it is.”
The February 2010 figures show that FASS is over £800,000 short of its budgeted income for the year. Student travel funds are one of several cuts the faculty has introduced in order to save money; staff travel funds have also gone and the associate deans’ funds have been frozen.
“You always have to make difficult decisions. But in some ways decision making becomes terrifically easy when you have no money; we can’t afford, at the moment, to send people to [conferences],” said Professor Tony McEnery, Dean of FASS.
McEnery stressed that the faculty will stand by all existing commitments to students and pointed out that the cut is a temporary one; the fund will reopen in August.
“My academic experience has been that if you’re going to give a paper in the summer you’ll have had that accepted already and if you then chose to hang around to ask for funding much later that was an unwise choice,” he said.
“There might be some people who decided to put off applying for the grant and they made be disadvantaged, but that was a choice they made, not to apply in a timely fashion.”
There are several factors contributing to the shortfall in income. First is Government funding. This has been cut for universities across the country and a significant proportion of what’s left is channelled towards science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, leaving arts and humanities without.
This attitude, McEnery feels, will do graduates no good at all.
“I see no evidence that the Stem-only policy works,” he said. “Will it do us much good? Probably not. A policy which says we must fetishize science above everything else is simple-minded and foolish and it completely under-estimates the cultural, social and financial benefits that you get from a well-educated and articulate workforce.”
Second is Faculty forecasting. The budgeted income depends on, amongst other things, the number of students each year who will begin a degree within FASS. Whilst undergraduate numbers are limited by the Government and therefore easy to predict, postgraduates and international student numbers are more likely to fluctuate.
“Right up to October we won’t know how many [postgrads] will actually show up. You get into a system of forecasting, and sometimes your forecasts are right and sometimes your forecasts are wrong,” said McEnery.
“There’s a lot of forecasting that is a reasonably well-informed guess. To some extent we depend on overseas students for undergraduate income and they also can be fickle,” added Mike Doupe, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies.
The faculty is making an attempt to increase numbers of both. More money – around £170,000, an increase of £25,000 on last year – has been set aside as bursaries and grants for new postgrads in the hope of easing potential students’ worries about the cost of study.
“We’re really making sure that when we can invest money in postgraduates we’re investing in giving people the opportunity to do the study in the first place,” said McEnery.
“We won’t do that to the expense of saying ‘We’ll convert the travel fund in total into bursaries and scholarships’ but there is a rebalancing act to be done. Having the opportunity to do postgraduate work in the first place is the key step that we need to get as many people to take as possible.”
A further method of saving money is what’s known as gap savings. Around two years ago the faculty, suspecting there may be difficult times ahead financially, introduced a policy whereby staff leaving or retiring are not replaced for three years.
“Currently the university has a standard policy to save money. The idea is that [it] creates budget savings,” said Professor Robert Geyer, Head of the Politics department. “That delay then allows you to reduce your costs for a period of time.”
Whilst McEnery insists that the policy is never applied in an ‘unthinking way’ and points out that without it Lancaster may have been forced to make staff redundant after the most recent Government cuts, there are several departments across FASS where retiring staff has led to a decrease in the number of modules available to undergraduates.
Problems ranging in severity have been reported in English, Film, Media and Cultural Studies, History and Music. In October, it was found that module changes in the Music department were so great that in some cases the course students were taking bore little resemblance to the one they had signed up for, with some students transferring to courses at other universities.
Despite efforts from Head of Department Alan Marsden and Director of Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts (LICA) Rachel Cooper, in the words of one current student “Everyone seems even more unhappy now than at the start of the year… The whole department just seems to be rapidly deteriorating.”
The biggest problems, however, are in the Politics department. In the 2010-11 academic year, 12 out of the usual 25 third-year modules will not be running, leaving some students with a very restricted choice.
“I asked [the department] which modules I’d taken next year [and] was told quite a significant proportion had been scrapped,” said Ben Smith, a second year Politics and History student. “I now cannot do some modules and have to do a dissertation, something which I’ve never wanted to do.”
Changes to module structure in departments such as History and Politics have been made over the past few years with the aim of providing students with more choice and flexibility. History in particular worked closely with departmental reps to ensure students were satisfied.
“[It] makes it possible for them to make informed choices about what they want to study,” said Dr Tim Hickman, Director of Undergraduate Studies for History. “Now, with a fee-paying regime, students are much more used to making choices.”
Many students now feel that not only have their choices been taken away, they have not been consulted about changes before they happened.
“The lack of consultation with students has been a main focal point,” said Smith. “We heard nothing from [the faculty reps] either. If I’m honest this does smack of a real sense of arrogance.”
Geyer agrees that there are currently ‘lots of fluctuating modules’ due to staff retiring or going on research leave. The department wants to hire three new people over the summer, which will enable them to run some ‘interesting and exciting’ new courses for students to choose next October.
The hope is that the forthcoming merger of Politics with Philosophy and Religious Studies (PPR) into one large department will speed up the process of employing new staff. The three departments will be run as one from October 2010, with Geyer as the overall head.
Unsurprisingly there have been challenges in trying to merge three departments, made more difficult, Geyer feels, by the fact that all three are still spread across the university. They will remain spread out until the completion of the new LICA building, hopefully in June 2010, when LICA staff will move into the new building and PPR staff will move into LICA’s old rooms in Bowland North.
“We’re hoping to get co-located in Bowland North as soon as possible. It’s challenging having to work with people when they’re in separate bits,” said Geyer. “We’re having meetings on a regular basis but it doesn’t match having someone in the hallway you can quickly walk to. My personal hope is that it’s as fast as possible.”
The merger was itself a contentious decision initially, with students feeling at the time that there was little or no consultation until it was passed by Senate. Although the current module disruption is unrelated there is a feeling amongst some that students’ opinions are not sought as often as they should be.
“The Politics department had their knuckles hit by Michael Payne [LUSU President] in the Michaelmas term after failing to consult and notify students about their merger with Religion and Philosophy, so they’ve clearly not learned their lesson here,” said Smith.
Staff in the three departments have concerns about the effects the merger will have on teaching and research. Very few of the academics SCAN contacted expected it to be a positive move.
“No real justification was provided as to why a merger is the way forward for the departments concerned,” said one staff member. “[It] limits student choice as some courses have been removed in the name of merger and streamlining. In research terms, existing staff can still study what they want if they are willing to operate as lone scholars; support from FASS is conditional on fitting into the new PPR mix.”
Senior management, however, hope that the new research structure will help in the all-important area of attracting new postgraduate students.
“We’re hoping to develop new things, with crossover programmes between the three units, particularly at the Masters level,” said Geyer. “The hope is that because you’ve got this new unit that’s distinctive we can then project ourselves as something that’s new, something unique, something exciting that will attract in the Masters and the postgraduate students.”