The University plans to increase student numbers in order to ‘grow income in real terms’ the Wessex Scene can reveal. In its ‘Core Business Model’ released last May, the University unveiled plans to lift the number of students by between 3,100 and 4,700 over the next five years.
Malcolm Ace, the Chief Financial Officer, commented that the increase is much more likely to be the lower figure, baring in mind potential cuts to higher education and the expected rise in fees after the Browne Review. This will undoubtedly, make it more difficult to recruit students, yet an increase in the student population of 3,100 would still have significant impact on the University. It would also see an estimated increase in income of £25 million.
When these plans were discussed in University Council last May, it was noted that “growth in student numbers… will pose challenges for the University in maintaining the quality of the student experience.” The Vice Chancellor did confirm that the focus was on sustainable growth, and the strategy would not be pursued at the expense of quality for students, but concerns have been raised about how realistic this promise is.
The total student population at the University has seen a steady growth over the last two decades. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency there were as few as 10,660 full time students at Southampton in 1995/6, and by the 2008/9 academic year this figure reached 18,720, an 80% growth in just over a decade. Although this has been relatively consistent with a nationwide growth in student numbers, the effects have not gone unnoticed on campus.
One key area of concern is accommodation. This year 248 students were twinned in halls of residence, and the Wessex Scene understands that over 100 of these had selected Southampton as their firm choice University. In its accommodation guide, the University promises to twin firm choice students only in years of ‘excessive demand’. There are currently plans to provide an extra 1000 student bedrooms to deal with the growth in numbers. However, even under the constrained model the University plans to recruit 1,100 new international students, all of whom will presumably require a place in halls, meaning more first years will have to twin or spend first year in private rented accommodation.
The availability of good housing in the city is already an issue, and competition for properties fierce. The local council raised concerns about the increase of ‘student ghettos’ and the availability of accommodation in discussions with the University about the plans. While the University resolved to proceed ‘sensitively’ in this respect, the fact remains that a student increase woud add to the current problems.
Space in the library is another major area of concern. Last year SUSU opened bar 2 and 3 in the Cube, as well as the Clubs and Societies Room to provide extra study space for students unable to get a seat in the library. However, with many key books reference only, studying in the library is essential to many students and further overcrowding could have a knock on effect on exam performance.
In the current financial climate, with cuts to higher education looming, it is obvious that the University must look to increase income in order to survive. However, it must be asked whether they can push ahead with these plans and still give students the best value for their tuition fees. Regardless of the income that would be generated, this should remain the major concern.