by Alex Powell

The number of students starting at UK universities has increased dramatically in recent years, despite a slight fall recorded this year, and is set to go on increasing as universities increase their intake. The government has heralded this as an example of the increasing availability of higher education to students coming from working class communities. However, we have to ask what impact the increase in student numbers is having on the quality of education provided by universities.

Few would argue that more people having the opportunity to access higher education is anything but a good thing. Nonetheless, it is important that we recognise that there are right and wrong ways to go about providing these opportunities. Since the lifting of the cap on student numbers many universities have employed rapid growth strategies, seeking to increase the number of students in their cohorts dramatically, in order to maximise the potential income brought in through tuition fees. This has widened access to higher education to an extent, but these policies are not without their drawbacks.

Universities must consider the impact larger classes have on teaching environments and student outcomes, as well as their bottom lines

The increase in student numbers has left departments and individual academic staff stretched, with the increasing demands on lecturers putting pressure on both their professional and personal commitments. We have to ask whether the attention paid to the individual student experience is compromised under the pressure of teaching an increasing number of students. With a greater amount of teaching and office hours being squeezed into an unchanged working day, surely something has to give.

Growing student numbers have also triggered an increase in class sizes, further compounding these pressures. This is most apparent in smaller group sessions such as tutorials and seminars. The idea of these sessions is to provide a more interactive backdrop against which students can clarify and apply their understanding, but they now often reach a size where it can be difficult for everyone to make themselves heard. This has a particularly damaging impact on those students who are less confident speaking in front of other people, leaving some students without the chance to deepen their understanding of key threshold concepts. This can be a major blow to their overall understanding of a subject, and to their grades as well. Larger classes also create difficulties for academic staff, placing limitations on the kinds of classroom activities they can make use of and creating more disruptive environments. The increasingly varied levels of understanding that will be present in larger classes bring further complications. Universities must consider the impact larger classes have on teaching environments and student outcomes, as well as their bottom lines.


Increasing class sizes can have a number of detrimental effects. Credit: Jim Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Alongside these practical concerns, lifting the cap on student numbers and raising tuition fees has reframed education in problematic ways. The image of the student as the self-motivated, self-guided learner seeking to expand their expertise and understanding of a field is giving way to that of the student as consumer, purchasing a product. This has an impact in the classroom, with students increasingly – and arguably justifiably – demanding more for their money. This colours both staff work and student engagement in concerning ways, with students less motivated to undertake self-guided study and expecting increasingly more from those charged with teaching them. As a result, in those small group sessions that are already being disrupted by increasing class sizes, discussions become increasingly staff-led, limiting students’ ability to properly refine their own understandings of topics.

In saying all this, I am absolutely not suggesting that universities taking more students is a bad thing, nor that staff are not enthusiastic to try and create the best possible outcomes for all of their students. But if universities want to keep increasing their student populations so dramatically, they need to make changes to ensure that their existing students are not disadvantaged, and that those new students get the quality of education they deserve. Greater access to higher education must not come at the cost of declining standards.

Featured image credit: Kit via Wikimedia Commons

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