Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 47 - 59)




  47. We now have Dorma Urwin, who is Principal of University College, Worcester, and Professor Michael Wright, Principal of Canterbury Christ Church University College; so welcome, indeed, both of you, too. Thank you very much for attending today at short notice. You will have the advantage of seeing the way that we operate, to some extent. Many of the questions that we are going to ask you are going to be going over similar ground, so bear with us; this Committee has a reputation for going over the same ground in certain areas. Can I start by going back to the extent of non-completion, and we are fascinated to have you here, because we spend an inordinate amount of time talking to universities and not talking enough to colleges, and so, in a sense, this is very refreshing for us, to have the opportunity to talk to you, and I know that our colleague, Michael Foster, was very keen that we looked at this area and called both of you as contributors. Can I start by saying to you, what have you seen in your own college experience; have you seen an increase in non-completion rates over the past, I was going to say ten years, but are there signs that non-completion rates are increasing, or is there evidence that people are dropping out and coming back to finish? What is the situation, how do you view it at the moment, in general terms?

  (Professor Wright) I should say, I have been in my present post for just over three years, and so, in a sense, I cannot stretch back, personally, for those ten years. The data we have, of course, published now by the Funding Council, takes us back over the last three or four years; there has been no significant change in my college over that time, and, from what I can gather, such research as I have done, the position has not been broadly different for a number of years. So insofar as our performance indicator, our performance against our benchmark is ahead of what is expected, I think that has been the case for a little while.

  48. So not much increase in non-completion rates?
  (Professor Wright) That is my general impression.
  (Ms Urwin) That would be true for Worcester as well. I think what you need to bear in mind, of course, is that the nature of the courses that we offer, typically the professional vocational courses, have very low drop-out rates anyway; so, in as much as there has been a marginal increase in drop-out, it has tended to be amongst the mature students on non-professional, non-vocational courses, and I have seen an increase in the drop-out from those students.

  49. Why is it that you are so successful with this category of student then? Perhaps we could learn something, in terms of other categories of students, if there is great success in the professional qualifications. What is it about that sort of qualification that seems to bind the student in and keeps them with you?
  (Ms Urwin) I think, students who come onto professional and vocational courses, and in both our institutions we have a high percentage of those students, they have made very specific choices, they have made informed choices about a career that they wish to follow; certainly, on the nursing and health side, they receive bursaries to support them through the programmes. There is a lot of support for the students, both from teaching staff and other support staff, and they have made an informed choice, they are interviewed before they come on the course, so they are clear about what they are coming to and we are clear about them. So I think there are some messages there. But I would stress that the students following those programmes do get quite significant support, both financial and otherwise.
  (Professor Wright) Could I add a comment, which, in a sense, is not an answer to your question but I think it is an important, contextual remark, which is to say that the colleges of higher education represent about a third of institutions in total, universities and colleges, but only about 10 per cent of the students, or, by definition, we are talking, on average—dangerous thing—but, on average, about smaller institutions, which may be a point you want to follow up. But, even within that 10 per cent, the kinds of programmes, the kinds of subjects that our students are taking are disproportionate when viewed across the whole of higher education. There was a sense, in listening to your earlier questions, universities and colleges, an homogeneous group, the only distinction, were they in existence before 1992 or were they not; now, clearly, it is a much more complex pattern than that. So that, for example, in our colleges, the 10 per cent of students include disproportionately large numbers of those training to be teachers, nurses, for careers in agriculture and in the creative arts, so those are the specialisms of the colleges; whereas we do not have large numbers, for example, of engineering and science students, other than those preparing to be teachers in those subjects. We are a distinctive sector.

  50. So you are distinctive in that you are smaller, they are more intimate institutions?
  (Professor Wright) As an average, yes, although some, including my own, are as large as many universities.

  51. Yes; how large is that?
  (Professor Wright) In our case, it is about 11,000 students.

  52. So some of them are more intimate institutions. Certainly, in terms of the way in which you express it, this professional cluster is different, yes?
  (Professor Wright) Yes. In my case, for example, and it would be similar in many others, it is 30 per cent, roughly 30 per cent, training for teachers, 30 per cent training for various careers in the health sector, and 40 per cent doing a range of other things.

  53. Will these be more mature students?
  (Professor Wright) Often; often.

  54. What is the balance between people coming to you at 18, what we used to call the regular students, and the more mature students?
  (Professor Wright) Of our full-time students, the latest figure I have is 27 per cent are under the age of 21, the balance are over the age of 21. I am told, but I have not any evidence of this, the average age is actually 28.

Mr St. Aubyn

  55. I wondered, you are both, as you say, colleges, and some of the universities with the best retention rates in the country follow a collegiate system. Do you think there is something about the collegiate approach that perhaps other universities could adopt, and if they broke down their admissions into colleges, and followed that sort of a policy, they could derive some benefits, and what other things would they have to do at the same time to make sure the concept really worked?
  (Ms Urwin) I think all we could say is that our experience of operating within smaller set-ups does seem to provide the opportunity for a wide range of students to get the support they need. There is a sense in which they perceive that they are part of a community, and I think that is, to some extent, a function of the size.

  56. Another aspect that came out of your written evidence was how easily you feel students can transfer from one course to another. To what extent do you think you are distinguished from universities, which, after all, do also let students transfer between courses, in what way do you think you are more flexible and more able to assist students in that respect?
  (Professor Wright) I have a statistic for this year, because I was aware the point might come up. In this academic year, 10 per cent of our first year undergraduate intake has transferred programmes, since the beginning of the year; we allow it without difficulty until the end of November, and round about 10 per cent did it. I cannot give you an equivalent figure for universities. I have a sense we are a little more flexible.
  (Ms Urwin) I think, also, the other point I just want to pick up on, which was touched on earlier, is that we do take, about, now, about 10 per cent of our intake comes directly into the third year. So, picking up on the point about can you step off, can you transfer, can you take your credits with you, we have a significant number of students now who actually do come into both the second but particularly into the third year of the full-time programmes.

  57. Is there a factor here that perhaps in universities the faculty's reputation, and indeed perhaps its funding, may be adversely affected if students moved out of their particular course and into another course of study? How do you deal with that potential problem, if you are being so flexible with students, in terms of letting them switch from one course to another?
  (Ms Urwin) Certainly, in our case, the funding follows the student, so if a student does transfer then the funding to support that student would transfer from one department to another.

  58. So, even though there are these transfers, you would expect faculties to fight quite hard, in your situation, as no doubt they would in a university, not to let a student go, even when the student felt that it was not in their best interests to stay on that particular course?
  (Ms Urwin) No, I do not think that is the way we operate. Our departments would, I am sure they would, seek to encourage students, but they would be referred to an academic adviser and the academic adviser would offer the advice on what was the best programme of study for the student; if that meant transferring then that is what would happen.

Mr Marsden

  59. Perhaps I could draw out a little bit more, because we have touched on it already, some of the factors that may mean that you have a better retention and a better non-completion strategy against than some other institutions. Nick has talked about size, and we will no doubt come back to that. But I noticed, and perhaps I can start off with you, Professor Wright, and the others might like to chip in, in the submission that you gave to us, and you talked about the factors that affected student retention, you picked up on this point which Ms Urwin has just talked about, about flexible course structures allowing programme transfers, but you also said the "importance of teachers who regard teaching and student support as their main priority;". Now would you like to tell us how that works within your own institution, presumably there is a research element there, and perhaps to comment, and perhaps the others would like to come in as well, again as to whether other institutions have that balance correct or not?
  (Professor Wright) I stand by the assertion that I believe it is an important factor that our academic staff regard teaching as their main business, as it were. Now I do not say that in the belief that there is not a tension there, but I think that is an assertion I would be very happy to stand by, and I believe staff in the college would as well. Why that is so and how it has come about, I think, is a combination of factors. One, I think, is, if we go back to the nature of the work that we do, in the colleges, certainly if you take two-thirds of our work, or thereabouts, 60 per cent, of teacher education and our health work, of course, all of those staff have a teaching qualification, they trained to be teachers, and, therefore, that is their life interest, in one sense. So I think that is an important factor. I think, at least I hope, that staff generally do understand where the money comes from and what for and upon what criteria we would be judged to be successful; the reality is, leaving aside other income, as it were, it is probably a balance of about 97 per cent to 3 per cent funding, whether from the Funding Council or the Teacher Training Agency or the Health Service, it is to support teaching activities. And I do not think staff are unaware of that reality, and, I think, in that and in other ways, but probably simply because it is their vocation to teach, that they do see this as their most important activity.
  (Ms Urwin) I would support that. The proportions are not quite as high, in terms of teaching and health-related courses in my institution, it is about 45 per cent, but, again, all those staff who are engaged in those programmes already have a teaching qualification, and certainly in my own institution we now require all our newly-appointed staff to go through a teaching programme to achieve a qualification.

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