Quality of education in universities falling as institutions focus funds on marketing, NUS leader warns

Eleanor Busby
Zamzam Ibrahim

The quality of education in universities is falling as institutions invest in marketing rather than on their staff and students, the new president of the National Union of Students (NUS) has said.

In one of her first interviews since taking up her post, Zamzam Ibrahim warned of overstretched academics teaching classes of more than 150 students, who pay up to £9,250 a year on tuition fees.

The removal of the student numbers cap has increased the competition between universities to recruit, she said, forcing them to prioritise “the bottom dollar” over student experience.

Ms Ibrahim warned that some universities could have to close down in the near future amid financial pressures, which she argues are a result of the “marketisation of education”.

Speaking to The Independent, Ms Ibrahim said universities are spending money on marketing and making sure their offers are “more attractive” in a fight for survival.

Her comments come after one of the biggest private providers of higher education went into administration, leaving thousands of students looking for alternative places to study.

GSM London announced that it would shut its doors as it had not been able to “recruit and retain sufficient numbers of students to generate enough revenue to be sustainable”.

Ms Ibrahim said: “The priority, that should always be students, is moving towards making money. That is what happens when you marketise education and when your main focus is the bottom dollar and by that we are corrupting our education system. I think it is incredibly worrying.”

Competition between institutions to recruit students to courses has intensified as there are fewer 18-year-olds in the population and yet student numbers at universities remain uncapped.

This means more popular universities are taking higher numbers of students, while other institutions are struggling to fill their courses and generate enough income to be sustainable.

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Some universities are reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy amid dropping student numbers.

Ms Ibrahim said: “One of the most terrifying things is which universities are going to close down next? Because the reality is that most of these institutions are looking at it [and saying,] ‘Ok, we have to recruit this many students and we don’t care how we do it or we are going to go under.”

Earlier this month, ahead of A-level results day, the Ucas boss said a record 80,000 students were expected to take up places on degrees through clearing as universities scrambled to fill courses.

Ms Ibrahim said spaces for students are being converted into offices on some campuses to save money, while other universities no longer cover printing costs.

She added: “Academics are under more pressure and are having to cover more lectures than they would on a normal day. Our academics are just as vital in our education system as we are. If my academic is under a lot of pressure and incredibly stressed then my quality of education goes down.

“That is a reality that most institutions are facing because they don’t have the money to be able to keep all the academics they would like.”

Ms Ibrahim, who was previously president of the students’ union at the University of Salford, was elected at the NUS annual conference in Glasgow in April and took up office in July.

One of her priorities as NUS president is to campaign for a fully funded education system – and she is planning to hold a national student strike to call for free education for all.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “We share the concerns of NUS when it comes to a lack of resources, the damage marketisation is doing to higher education and the pile ’em high, teach ’em cheap approach.

“Despite the formidable efforts of staff, they cannot keep giving more for less.”

She added: “To ensure students can receive the very best education, universities have to invest resources in their number-one asset – their staff.”

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A Universities UK spokesperson said Ms Ibrahim’s comments emphasised the need for “sustainable funding to ensure students receive the high-quality university experience they rightly expect”.

They added: “Universities are operating in a challenging environment with increased competition, undergraduate tuition fees frozen and immigration rule changes impacting their ability to attract international students.

“Despite this, universities have successfully managed their finances to date.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government subsidises around half of the overall cost of higher education – a conscious investment in the skills and people of this country. Our universities are world class, with four UK institutions ranked amongst the top ten in the world.

“The English higher education sector remains in overall positive financial health and its reputation for excellence continues to attract more international students than ever before, boosting Britain’s exports and HE finances.”

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