Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)




  80. Can I ask you what percent. of your students are local?
  (Professor Wright) Of our full-time students, I mentioned 11,000, we have about 5,500 part-time students, who, by definition, mostly are local; of our other 5,500 full-time, round about half come from Kent and half from elsewhere.

Mr St. Aubyn

  81. Ms Urwin, you wanted to add something there, if it is still in your mind?
  (Ms Urwin) In terms of our recruitment, 60 per cent is regional, sub-regional, within the West Midlands. I just wanted to add that, in relation to our students, in addition to what Michael has said, we do do a three-year follow-up survey with all graduates, to find out what they are doing formally, three years after graduation, and so we keep that as a databank.

  82. Both of you exercised the vocational slant, if you like, of a lot of the courses that your students were on; are the students who come up to you, with what they think are vocational leanings, but become much more interested perhaps in the theoretical academic aspects of the work, if that happens, how easy is it for them to transfer, as it were, seamlessly, to either more courses on campus or perhaps to other institutions in your neighbourhood, the university up the road, perhaps, who provide a more academic slant in the same field of study?
  (Ms Urwin) If you take ours, to start with, take teacher education, for example, the way the programme is structured, they get a very early placement in a school, so that they get some hands-on experience straightaway; they should all come having had experience working with children, in one way or another, so they should be pretty well informed. But once they have gone out into the school for their first placement there are a number who will always come back and say, "Teaching is not for me." And, the way that the programmes are structured in the first year, they can transfer easily and without loss of time to other programmes; and it is not unknown for one or two to transfer, as you say, to the very large university up the road.

  83. I asked that because, in Surrey, actually we are going to Guildford, my constituency, next week, to hear about this more first-hand, we have seen a sort of umbrella created by Surrey University, which now takes in, for instance, the Roehampton Institute, so that whole process can be handled within one university. In the course of time, do you see colleges like yourselves, while retaining your distinctive identity as a college, being part of a bigger university in your particular locality, and would there be benefits to you that you can see deriving from that?
  (Professor Wright) The answer is no. I believe that Canterbury Christ Church is a large institution in its own right, and I think that we can offer a sufficient variety so that students can find an outlet which is appropriate for them in the college. Can I just come back on your comment about vocational and professional, because, I think, from my point of view, and perhaps Dorma's is the same, we may have allowed the impression to develop that this is slightly sharper than it all is. Being educated to be a teacher, or a nurse, or an occupational therapist, is not an unintellectual exercise, it is not an unacademic exercise; very much so, those preparing to be teachers, or nurses, or whatever, are engaged in an academic programme. It is simply that it has, as part of its very specific outputs, a career. So I think the sense in which people perhaps come in and find they are not being challenged would be completely at odds with the truth.

  84. No, I was not suggesting that for a moment. My wife, in fact, has trained as a teacher herself, so I understand this. But I just wondered, you will get those who find that actually being in the classroom is not for them, but they are still interested in the area and they find there is scope for them in the field of academic study?
  (Professor Wright) In Canterbury, there are the same kinds of routes out, as it were; but, I have to say, they are taken by relatively few students. And I go back to my answer that I think it is because they know what they are coming to when they choose to come and train to be a teacher, or a nurse, or whatever.

  85. I do not know if anyone wants to comment on the issue of becoming part of the big university up the road?
  (Ms Urwin) I thought you were going to walk away from that. We are part of what is called the West Midlands Higher Education Association, which is an association which brings together all the Vice-Chancellors and Principals in the West Midlands, and regional co-operation and regional collaboration are very much on the agenda; as you know, the Funding Council is promoting it very strongly and is making funding available to support that. So we have developed a number of collaborative links with universities in the West Midlands, largely at post-graduate level, I have to say, but I would not rule out the possibility of further collaboration at undergraduate level, but within a framework which recognises that Worcester is a distinct, separate, independent entity.


  86. We are coming towards the end of the session, and Professor Yorke has been very patient; he is one of the leading experts on this issue of retention. And, Professor Yorke, can I ask you, you have listened to what our two guests have said regarding their colleges, since they are different from many of the universities we are looking at, different in the sense that they are highly successful at retaining their students, are there lessons that the rest of the sector could learn from their example; what is it that they are doing that we are not transposing across the piece to other universities who have more difficulty with retention?
  (Professor Yorke) I think it is not quite as clear-cut as that, because I think there are a number of institutions in the university sector which are being very successful; you have only to look at the performance indicators to see that. I think that they put their finger on it, very much, when they talked about the way in which they bring the students in to the institution. One of the things I remember, way back in the late eighties, when the inspectors were still in operation, was that one of their concerns was, very much, when we went modular in our institution, where is the academic home for the student, does the student feel they belong somewhere, or not; and we had to be very sure that we provided that kind of arrangement for students so they did not get lost in the modularity. Now I think that, probably, the smaller institutions and the colleges generally have a greater sense of development of that notion of academic home than others; that is a guess rather than a piece of empirical knowledge. But I think it is all of a piece with the importance that I was stressing on the first year experience as being the key, and the need to make sure that if one has limited resources I would disproportionate them in favour of that first year experience because of its crucial nature.

  87. Interesting you mention the whole notion of home. We all went to the United States to look at some of their higher education institutions, and, of course, one of the things you found at Stanford and at a range of other institutions was that there was a demand from students to get back to smaller class teaching; you know, these great big classes, in the early years, with 500, 600 students, and all the university administrations were recognising this and fighting back, even these élite institutions with a lot of resources, to get back to that, closer to identification with smaller groups. I wonder what our other guests today feel about that?
  (Professor Yorke) Could I respond to that, Chairman?

  88. Yes. Professor Yorke?
  (Professor Yorke) Because there is a small piece of evidence, and it is only small, but it is Vincent Tinto again, whom I mentioned earlier, and he did a study in Seattle Community College, which, at the time, I think, was heavily modular and inferentially did not have the kind of homeness about it. And while he was working with them they changed the programmes and they became much more coherent, route-oriented, and so on, so that the students had more of an academic home. And he found a whole lot more success with the students when that régime was in operation as compared with the previous one, suggesting that the notion of academic home does begin to pay off.

  89. I think that is something that the Committee will very much take to heart. I gave the opportunity to Professor Yorke to be Secretary of State for a couple of minutes. Ms Urwin and Professor Wright, how about you? If you look at the other institutions that we have been talking about, and we are covering the whole of HE, what do you think they are doing wrong; if you were the Secretary of State, where would you put your emphasis, where are your priorities? It is £200 million we are losing, £200 million that you can spend on higher education, if you can save that money. What would you do, what would you advise the Secretary of State to do?
  (Ms Urwin) Assuming that the agenda is to widen access and increase participation then I would advise much better information for potential students; because I believe that many potential students are being put off because they simply do not know that a third of our students do not pay tuition fees, for example, they assume they are going to have to. So I think better information for potential students, so they understand what it is they would be taking on, and, I have to say, I would favour a Cubie type model for student funding, student support. And I would say to the institutions that—

  90. You do mean a Cubie, not the one that the Scottish Executive actually adopted?
  (Ms Urwin) I meant Cubie, but I think I could live with the Scottish model.
  (Professor Wright) I think, if Dorma means by that we would favour, and this is not on behalf of my college, this is a more general view than that, I do believe that finding a way of removing the up-front cost of higher education and moving it towards more of a deferred contribution model would be the thing that I would examine most seriously.

  91. So do you think that, for example, paying back 9 per cent when you get a £10,000 salary is too early and too much?
  (Professor Wright) I think that, almost certainly, too early and too much.

Charlotte Atkins

  92. Would you also support the idea that the preferential loans which are available should be extended, so that they will be a larger amount of money that students could then pay back at the end of the course, rather than having to worry about working while they were doing their courses?
  (Professor Wright) Clearly, making available preferential loans is better than not having loans, but I would still take the view that it is better not to have loans; because, as I mention in my brief note to you, the perception of debt, I do believe, is significant amongst those we are seeking to attract. And we do not know this, we simply do not know who does not come because of this, but I do have this feeling that it is that perception which is quite significant. To put it another way, as I tried to say earlier, I believe finance is a very relevant issue, more for students who do not come than for those who do.


  93. Are you not surprised though, Professor Yorke, you said that there has not been much research, apart from your research, done on this, and here we have 100 plus leading universities in this country, a large number of very good higher education institutions, would you not have thought that actually they would have instituted their own research to find out why people did not stay on to complete their degrees? Is there not research there that shows perhaps it is debt, perhaps it is the rotten accommodation they had to live in, in their first year, perhaps they were just homesick?
  (Professor Yorke) Some institutions do do this. When I made that comment, I was referring to the—

  94. Published research?
  (Professor Yorke) (A) published, but also (b) the substance and size of the survey; the stuff that I did was considerably bigger than any individual institution could do, so it was that mass thing. The problem with lots of little things is, it is very difficult to add the bits together; you can see straws blowing in the wind but they are blowing in a fairly approximate direction. There is nothing that I have seen, from the stuff that has come from institutions, that would lead me to alter the view that I produced from the results that I got.

  95. But Evan Harris, earlier, asked you about students seeing themselves more as consumers; surely, if universities do have these concerns, do have these students who come and try out a product and then walk away and say, "This isn't for me," most institutions, for goodness sake, most retailers, would do in-depth research to find out why they were unsuccessful in retaining the customer. Could you point out to us institutions that have done that sort of in-depth research?
  (Professor Yorke) Many institutions do do research that relates to that, and they would do student satisfaction surveys, and things like that, which begin to touch into the issues. The bit that I think often is missing is that the student satisfaction stuff is not hooked into the retention stuff, so that it is not joined up enough, so you cannot actually develop the causality in the way that really you would like; and that, I think, is the bigger problem, institutionally. But there is considerable potential within institutions for making those connections, and that would be helpful for internal policy-making.

  Chairman: That is an excellent point.

Mr Marsden

  96. We have been offering you the opportunity to play adviser to the Secretary of State on a whole range of retention issues, but, of course, on a day-to-day basis, HEFCE is a very important player, both in terms of its performance indicators and also in terms of its funding priorities. And I would like to ask all of you, very briefly, therefore, are there things about the HEFCE performance indicators which could be changed which would improve our knowledge of what we needed to do to increase the completion rates, and are there things about HEFCE's funding priorities that need to be changed to minimise those non-completion rates?
  (Professor Wright) I think the HEFCE information is, of course, still relatively new, I think we are all assessing the implications of it; obviously, we are pleased if it looks as though we come out rather well, but we are not complacent about that. So I think it is rather early to comment on that.

  97. Is there anything at the moment which sticks out, to you, they are really not addressing that; for example, let me give you an example, different completion rates between different ethnic minorities, or different completion rates between different types of subject?
  (Professor Wright) I do not think I feel able to comment on that, without some further thought.

  98. What about the funding priorities?
  (Professor Wright) I think there is a general concern in the colleges, and perhaps in some of the universities, that the efforts of some institutions to take the issues you are talking about very seriously appear to be being underrewarded.

  99. Dorma, you have been closely involved with various bits of HEFCE, over the years; maybe I am asking you a difficult question here, but perhaps you would like to respond?
  (Ms Urwin) I think it should be noted that I am a member of the HEFCE Board, so obviously I do have some knowledge and information. I think I would agree with Michael, that there are many institutions in the sector, universities and colleges, which have taken widening participation and access very seriously, and also I would point specifically to taking students with disabilities seriously as well. And I think there is a general perception—

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