What are they paying for?

When the UK government announced that the cap on tuition fees would be raised to £9000/year for students (with some variations across the country), I asked myself, What will the students actually be paying for? I know that at my own university, teaching is important, but not as important as upping research outputs. In addition, there are a myriad of activities that university staff undertake that are not directly related to teaching. There are also the huge overhead costs that have to be paid for (buildings, lights, etc.). All of this is now going to be largely covered by the students.

Every year, the faculty members at the universities in the UK have to fill out approximate time allocation records, estimating the amount of time spent on these various activities. I have managed to access this data for most of the UK institutions (an organisation I belong to got the information through freedom of information requests). I downloaded the %staff costs that are publicly available (percentage of expenditures that are staff related) for all the universities, and found the amount of all the tuition fees that are being charged this year for incoming undergraduates. From that information, I figured out what the students are actually paying for.

The time allocation has been divided into time for teaching, research and other activities. I took these proportions, and multiplied them by the tuition fees paid, and multiplied these three numbers by the percentage of expenditures that are allocated to staffing costs and the amount allocated to overhead (non-staff) costs. This gives me six numbers, the amount students are paying (through tuition) for:

  1. staff teaching time (by the staff’s own calculations)
  2. staff research time
  3. other activities of staff members
  4. university overheads associated with teaching
  5. university overheads associated with research
  6. university overheads associated with other activities.

I have split the data into three summary groups, pre 92, post 92, and Russell Group (RG) universities.


Staff Time Devoted to

University Overheads For

  Teaching Research Other Teaching Research Other
Post ‘92







Pre ‘92














It appears that the Russell Group wins again. The students pay the least for their teaching there, and the business world values their degrees the highest.

Shame about burdening students with the lions share of the UK’s research costs.

OU Potential

The shift to embracing an information abundance world is going to be much harder, and with more casualties than most of us can imagine.

I have talked to a number of academics who are not immersed in digital learning, and am surprised about their reactions to changes in the educational model. Virtually every one is incredibly defensive about what they have always done and how they approach their teaching. This is the way we’ve always done it, and this is the way we will always do it.

They get excited about the idea of a MOOC. They think that recording a lecture and putting it online is cutting edge. They think that the world will change at their pace. I think they are wrong.

I just watched Martin Bean’s keynote at the HEA conference this year (was going to Canada, so didn’t make the conference). I’ve heard him before, and his message is similar to what he has said before. What is frightening for the rest of HE is that he is the Chancellor of the OU! He is a visionary leader who can see the direction education is going, and he is shaping the OU to seize the initiative.

If anyone thinks this is not a big deal, the OU is one of the world’s leading institutions. With 250,000 students and leadership like Martin Bean, watch this space. I think that if the OU can shake off the traditional image it has as an alternative university and re image itself as the way of the future, there will be a reshaping of the HE environment like never before.

I think the Edx initiatives pale when compared to what would be possible if the OU pulled out all the stops and began to realise the vision Martin personifies.

Given the head in the sand mentality of most academics in traditional universities, the future doesn’t look rosy.