Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60
THURSDAY 11 JANUARY 2001
60. Given that sort of experience, and we are
looking and the Government is looking, with the new Institute
of Learning and Teaching, at how we expand that experience across
the higher education sector, would there be a role for colleges,
such as yourselves, and we talk in other areas, in secondary areas,
about having mentors, would there be a role for your colleges,
and some of the people in those colleges, to act as mentors to
those in the university sector whose teaching skills may not be
quite as well honed as yours?
(Professor Wright) In my case, actually, we do do
a lot of that, not for universities but for further education
colleges. One of the programmes we offer is a post-graduate certificate
in education for those who teach or are starting teaching further
education, so we already do that; not for other universities,
we are happy to take on any additional business.
Mr Marsden: Perhaps we ought to send you off
with a flak-jacket to one or two of our senior universities on
this matter. But can I move on a little bit from that.
61. Before you do, just to pursue that point
with Professor Yorke, who has been very patient with us today,
what do you think of that view; is one of the reasons we are not
getting retention rates as well in universities as we are in colleges,
do you think it is because, basically, we have got some lousy
university teachers, they are too busy researching, or have never
completed any course in how to teach? Is there a fundamental flaw
in universities not being able to teach?
(Professor Yorke) I would not, in any way, say that
any university teacher was lousy, in the way that you put it,
but the situation in universities is changing, because of the
developments which have been alluded to. There is a much greater
use of courses for training university teachers now than there
was, and so that is a growing thing, and there are many people
in the universities who have got that kind of responsibility and
whose work will have been given an immense impetus by developments
such as the ILT, and the need for learning and teaching strategies
as well. The market in education developers, if I can call them
such, has been very robust lately, as institutions have sought
to make appointments to these kinds of roles, recognising the
need to do something about it.
62. But is there an important view here, because
Gordon made the point, in earlier questioning to you, that one
of the problems that we found in universities in the United States,
but also to some extent here, is that the most junior staff seem
to teach the first year, which is the year that you say is the
problem; two-thirds, if you are going to lose them, two-thirds
of the people you lose you lose in the first year. Now I went
to the London School of Economics, where there was a very old
tradition that the biggest professors, the best known, gave the
introductory lectures, and it was stunning, you know, Karl Popper
and Michael Oakeshott, and people like that, they were the people
that, if you like, gripped the imagination of students as they
arrived, the sort of reverse. And I wondered if you thought perhaps
that is one of the weaknesses?
(Professor Yorke) I think there is a problem in that
direction, yes. I would put my strong people in at the beginning,
for the reasons, but they have got to be strong pedagogues as
well as strong experts in the subject, bearing in mind some of
the other things we have been talking about.
63. If you ever met Popper and Oakeshott, I
think you would agree they would meet that criterion.
(Professor Yorke) Fine.
64. I just want to move on from there, because
we are talking about strategies to reduce non-completion and particular
expertise that colleges of higher education might have. And one
of the things that strikes me, from what you have said already,
is that you may particularly have experience with taking in students
from the further education sector, and that is something that
I would like to press a little more, and, indeed, if Professor
Yorke wants to add to this as well. We are told that the links
between FE and HE are increasing all the time, and the number
of HE courses, for example, that are now delivered in further
education colleges is rising rapidly, but I want to press you
on whether you feel that there is sufficient institutional collaboration,
and particularly whether franchising arrangements, such as FE/HE
links, help in the process of non-completion?
(Ms Urwin) I think the development of the links between
further education colleges and higher education institutions has
been one of the most significant contributors to the growth in
access and to widening participation; and having those links well
established, so that students can move through easily from one
institution to the other, is one of the critical factors in ensuring
success in the first year of a degree programme. I would agree
with Professor Yorke that the first year is the critical one,
and probably I would say the first month of the first year is
the critical one. And where students have been following programmes
in a further education college they have the opportunity, during
that year, to get to know the higher education institution, they
can visit, they get to know the staff, they get to know the facilities
that are available. Certainly, with us, we make them members of
our students' union, if they are old enough, so they get familiar
with the institution before they transfer, and I think that is
actually very important, in terms of helping to retain them.
65. Is there a social and, to some extent, a
psychological factor at work here as well? Again, we are very
exercised on the access issue about getting larger numbers of
non-traditional, working-class, lower socio-economic groups, call
them what you like, students in. And one of the things that I
have been struck by, in my own area, in Blackpool, where I have
a further education college that acts as a feeder college into
Lancaster University, is the way in which it is a lot easier to
persuade particularly women in their thirties and forties, who
may come from a working-class background, to take those courses
when they do not literally have to go ten miles up the motorway
to a university but can do them in their local college?
(Ms Urwin) I think it is absolutely true. We have
many examples of mature, women students, in particular, who will
start a foundation year at a local FE college, I am thinking of
one in particular, this last year, who graduated, started in a
local foundation year programme, came on to us, graduated, aged
47, with a first-class degree.
(Professor Wright) I would simply echo much of that.
We have a variety of arrangements with different further education
colleges, and I think giving the students an opportunity to come
into further and higher education gradually and in different ways,
which suit different people, is exactly right.
66. Just one final point, on developing that
and talking about collaboration and co-operation, we now have,
the Government has obviously set up the Learning and Skills Council,
we have Regional Development Agencies, and there are parts of
the country where there are clearly regional clusters between
HE and FE working and developing well. Do you think that that
is a model for future progress, that we should be putting more
emphasis on the regional collaboration between FE and HE, particularly
in terms of the access targets which Government is talking about?
(Professor Wright) I think it is inevitable. I am
not sure that being utterly prescriptive about it will achieve
anything, but there are certainly some good examples; and, without
wanting to make this too personal, for example, my college has
developed what I think is a very effective arrangement, in Thanet,
with the further education college there, we have developed a
higher education campus, and frankly it is almost seamless.
Chairman: Right. Charlotte, would you like to
continue the line of questioning?
67. Yes. Can you identify a student who is at
risk of non-completion when they enter your college; and, if you
can, what do you do to try to reduce that risk?
(Ms Urwin) I think, again, it does depend on the type
of course they are doing. I think we have to accept that the students
following professional vocational courses, by and large, are much
less likely to drop out. The students most likely to drop out
are the ones who come through the UCAS system, who perhaps have
chosen programmes without sufficient information about the programme,
and within the first couple of weeks it becomes clear that this
is not the right programme for them. Now that is why, as Professor
Yorke said, it is incredibly important that they get the support
through academic advisers, through counsellors, through the registry,
in the first few weeks of the programme. I think if they are with
you after four weeks then the chances of them dropping out decrease
considerably. But that does require a lot of personal tutor input
and it requires properly integrated student support services,
so they get picked up in one way or another.
68. So do you employ people who are skilled
at doing precisely that, or is it an add-on to their day job,
as it were?
(Ms Urwin) We have, I think we both have student support
centres, where we have qualified academic advisers, qualified
welfare advisers, financial advisers, health advisers.
69. In some ways though, if you have students
going into a vocational course, say, for nursing, it is going
to be much more difficult for them to transfer to another course
if they suddenly decide that nursing is actually a bit too much
like hard work and they cannot quite hack it, it is going to be
quite a bit more difficult for them to switch over to another
area of work. If you are coming into an academic course, you can
maybe switch onto another subject. So what do you do with the
students who do opt for a vocational course and then find it is
not for them?
(Professor Wright) It is possible to move out of teacher
education into, as it were, an ordinary BA, BSc; it happens relatively
little, I have to say. I can only re-assert, in a sense, what
Ms Urwin has just said, and that is, if one has effective interview
arrangements, before students join the programme, one is often
looking, obviously, to see that they really do understand what
this will involve, that they really are motivated towards a career
in teaching, or nursing, or whatever, that they understand what
the course will involve, that they will spend half of their time
in a hospital or in another health setting, or in a school, and
so perhaps it does sound rather idealistic, but really one is
seeking to head off the problems before they arise. It is more
difficult, clearly, when one is recruiting students to a more
general BA, BSc scheme, in a subject which they can have had,
by definition, sometimes no experience of, and where perhaps they
have no clear idea of where it is going to lead, in careers terms.
For those students, if I may just say this, we do seek, at a very
early stage in their time with us, in their induction, actually,
to begin to say to them, "Look, it's early to say `What are
you going to do in three years' time,' but you must think about
70. And how many of those students on those
vocational courses actually end up getting a job, a real job,
within their chosen field of study?
(Professor Wright) The vast majority do take an initial
post in either teaching or nursing, to take those two areas. I
think there is an interesting question as to what happens to them
three years after that, but if I say that is not my problem, it
is my problem, and it is our problem, but that is perhaps a separate
71. Would you like to comment on that as well?
(Ms Urwin) Yes. If you look at the figures for first
destinations, again, you will find that colleges like ours have
very high first destination statistics, and that, again, is partly
this reflection of professional and vocational courses. And, certainly,
within my own area, 97 per cent of nurses who qualify through
the pre-registration contract go into nursing, and predominantly
that is within the West Midlands, so they are actually taught
and trained and then employed within the region.
72. That is quite common, is it not, even if
you are talking about training doctors, that they often do locate
where they were trained, so that is not a huge surprise. Does
student financial hardship enter into the equation, as far as
drop-out is concerned, within your colleges?
(Ms Urwin) Yes, certainly; in my institution, you
will find that one of the most predominant, or typical, reasons
given, particularly by mature women students, for non-completion
is financial pressure, child care responsibilities, domestic responsibilities,
it is those three coming together. I think, very often, perhaps
for the younger students, it is as much a fear of debt as the
reality of debt, and there is a very strong concern, in effect,
not to take on a second mortgage.
(Professor Wright) I am less sure, that is not to
say I disagree, I am less sure. I am very sure that students whom
we do not know about may be put off by debt or the perception
of debt. The evidence I have is that once we recruit the students
they do not tell us that they are leaving for financial reasons,
they tend to tick a box and talk to us about `other reasons';
whether that really is money, in some cases, I could not possibly
say, but finance is given by not as many as perhaps I had thought
when I looked for the information. But, again, I think one has
to remember that, for a third of our students, they are receiving
NHS bursaries and tuition fees are paid, so you take a third of
our students out of the equation.
73. To what extent are students these days discriminating
customers, in terms of, for example, having paid, or their parents
having paid, hopefully, their tuition fee, for that third that
pays the full fee; does that make them more demanding of better
teaching, or is it hard to make that tell?
(Professor Wright) I think there is certainly anecdotal
evidence that students do, now, increasingly, see themselves as
paying for a service, but I would not want to overstate that yet,
but one can certainly see it developing in that way; and, from
time to time, of course, one gets a letter which says something
along the lines you have just said, "I've paid for this;
it wasn't good enough." But I often share with my staff the
observation that, yes, if we want to use the language of customer,
not many businesses also have to judge their customers, and so
it is a very difficult balance to strike. But I still do not detect
it is a serious issue, but it is one which I think is beginning
(Ms Urwin) I think there is some evidence that, particularly
parents, where parents are paying, actually rather more than the
individual students, the parents are being more demanding, in
terms of the quality of the facilities, the quality of the programme
and the resources to support it; but it is not great at the moment.
74. And what about term-time work, do you set
limits? I know that the professional people on professional courses
cannot actually take on that, and therefore may end up, although
they have got a job processed at the end of it, so they may take
on greater debt, but the people not on professional courses, do
you have a limit to the amount of work that you think they should
do, and how do you police that?
(Ms Urwin) There is no formal limit. We have a Job
Centre on our campus, which is there to facilitate part-time job
opportunities for students. We counsel students very carefully
and we suggest that the maximum that they should undertake is
15 hours, but we could not actually stop them doing more, if that
was what they chose to do.
(Professor Wright) We strongly advise a similar limit.
Our impression is that probably something over half of our non-professional
students engage in part-time work. I think I just want to make
two points about part-time work, if I may. One is that, of course,
many of those students do it for financial reasons, in other words,
simply to continue to be a student; there is some evidence that
others do it simply because they like to do it. The other point,
I think, is that, the impact of students working, of course, we
would be very concerned if the impact was, if it adversely affected
their academic work. I think we have an equally serious concern
that actually it adversely affects their overall experience as
a student; in other words, it is not their work that suffers,
it is the non-work aspect of being a student, that is what they
give up in order to work.
75. This is another issue now, but do you think
your students look at your staff and say, "Yeah, they're
well paid, cushy numbers, this graduation thing and going into
teaching's really worth it"? Is there that direct sort of
mentoring of "Come and be a teacher or lecturer in a college,"
or do you think there is a challenge there?
(Ms Urwin) I do not think my students, or our students,
would look at lecturing particularly and say, "That's a cushy
number." There is quite a strong understanding, I think,
that, with the increased numbers of students now passing through
higher education, the actual demands on teaching staff have significantly
increased, and managing the teaching and learning for significantly
larger groups now than, say, were there ten years ago does place
considerable demands and strain on lecturing staff. So I do not
suppose that there are too many out there who would be looking
at that as a particular role model; but I may be wrong.
76. Do you think that improving the staff/student
ratio and increasing the unit of funding would actually help retention
by giving more staff/student contact time, clearly, it would,
logically, but would that make an impact on the quality of the
student experience, as one of the top three things to be done?
(Ms Urwin) I think there is a range of issues there,
but the quality of the student experience is dependent upon a
number of factors, of which, clearly, the quality of the teaching
that they receive is an important factor. I think, more support
for lecturing staff, in the non-professional areas, clearly would
help support them, particularly to cope with larger student numbers.
77. Sorry to interrupt. Does that mean, in practical
terms, less time spent literally having to collate and photocopy
themselves and being able to pass it on to an assistant who could
(Ms Urwin) That would probably improve the quality
of their working lives quite considerably.
Mr St. Aubyn
78. When the Committee visited the United States,
I think it is fair to say, we were all impressed by the extent
to which universities there stay in touch with their alumni, and
they see that very much as part of the continuing relationship
with their students. You have emphasised the role your colleges
play, in terms of providing support to students when they are
with you; do you have methods, policies, about keeping in touch
with your students when they leave, and to what extent do you
feel you stay in touch with them more perhaps than do some of
the other universities?
(Professor Wright) We do have an alumni arrangement,
or organisation, which enables us to keep in touch with students
in a formal sense, through newsletters, etc. Of course, again,
to some extent, given the nature of what we do, there is a considerable
informal, local'ish network, in that, in the schools in which
our students are trained to be teachers, as well as being in the
college, there are teachers and headteachers who were graduates
of the college, and similarly in the nursing and in other arenas.
So we do have formal arrangements, but we also have informal arrangements.
79. Do you think there is a sense, of students
going through your college, that this is a long-term relationship,
if you like, and one which, therefore, they would be very loath
to jeopardise and cast out from because just in the short term
they are having a hard time with their studies? That may be a
contributory factor in terms of persuading them to stay through
the course, because they can see the benefits of staying with
the college and working with you?
(Professor Wright) I think the majority can see the
benefits of staying with the college because actually they are
quite enjoying their time with us and can see sensible outlets
at the end; and many of them, in fact, do have a continuing relationship
thereafter, by way of returning for further study, professional
updating. So I do not think that any of them cast themselves adrift
for spurious reasons.