Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 140 - 160)



  140. In the present structure, we were hearing from students—and we heard from teachers as well—the students arrive and they are immediately pitched for by the modular structure of these courses. They are immediately pitched for, into a sort of conveyor belt of bite-sized modules—they may start out being big survey courses and they then progress subsequently. There does not seem to be, in the structure of many universities' courses at the moment, the traditional term or two terms for overall reflection, before, as it were, they get on the conveyor belt. Is that something which you inspect for? Is that something which you are concerned about?
  (Mr Randall) It is not something that we would inspect for, in the sense of having a template to which we would expect all institutions to conform. It is something that I am personally concerned about. I agree very much with what you say; I think the notion of bite-sized learning does not fit very happily with the conceptual understanding that you would expect to be developed in higher education. If we can, perhaps, move the pendulum, so that we do not lose the flexibility in course design that modular arrangements have brought but we do get back to taking a rather more holistic over-view of what programmes are seeking to achieve, I think that would be beneficial to students.


  141. Before you move off that, Gordon, may I just chip in? Is there not something rather worrying about the questions and the answers there, John?—in the sense that beneath it seems to be a view that there is one system of teaching that is effective across institutions. Is that not something of a danger of the QAA approach?—that, in a sense, for some institutions bite-sized learning might be just the thing and it distinguishes it from another institution down the road which spends all its time reflecting very carefully over a long period of time. In a sense, one of the criticisms of QAA has been, has it not, that we might end up all with the same sort of teaching methods, which would add a dull uniformity to the one hundred and whatever it is higher education institutions that we have. Is there a danger there? It seemed to be coming out from your responses to Gordon.
  (Mr Randall) There is a wonderful tension that I am picking up from you that we pick up from the sector as well.

  142. I like people to get tension!
  (Mr Randall) When you asked this morning should it not be our job to do this, that and the other, if you get through to the point of trying to implement that as our job, then you do go down this road of saying, "There is one way of doing it," and you get the sort of dangers of conformity. We get exactly the same from the higher education sector. We get a lot of people saying, "Tell us what to do, then we know we will be all right when your lads come in," and at the same time they say, "Oh, but, you must remember, we are autonomous institutions and we will do what we like, but just please tell us what we ought to be doing." That tension I find fascinating, that sometimes it comes from a little lack of self-confidence, of fear that we are going to jump on anything that looks like non-conformity. We do not have a conformist model. There is a very healthy diversity of provision within higher education and we do not want to get to "one size fits all". Having said that, I think it remains legitimate to hold a view that the sort of conceptual understanding that is required for the award of an honour's degree is unlikely to be developed simply by adding up a lot of small bite-sized bits of learning; at some point the connections have to be made, the overview has to be taken and the joining up has to happen. If the course is not designed in a way that promotes that sort of overview thinking and the application of ideas and understanding gained from one part of the course to material that is studied in another, then we are missing out on quite important attributes.

Mr Marsden

  143. Perish the thought, I do not think we would want the QAA to be in the situation of being the great prescriptor as to what should or should not be done. We have had enough of that from another body's chief inspector recently. But what I think we would like to have is a sense that you are asking the right questions about completion and about student experience. I want to move us on from that to talk about the other side of the coin to modularity, which is flexibility and portability. One of the things that we have been picking up from our discussions with people is that credit transfer, credit accumulation, sounds fine in principle but in practice it runs up against the hard rock of university autonomy, it runs up against fussiness, and, perhaps, too much bespoke customisation of courses which means that one university is reluctant to take on another university. As you know, I have a long involvement with the Open University, therefore I am a particular advocate, particularly for part-time and continuing students, of the ability, when circumstances dictate, to be able to drop out and then to come back in and pick studies up. Is that the sort of issue that you are currently looking at in universities? If not, should it be part of your remit?
  (Mr Randall) I think the important thing about any type of transfer of people leaving for a while and coming back later is that when they go into any academic programme or part of an academic programme, they are coming in with a shared understanding between the students and those who will be teaching them of the base of knowledge and understanding that they bring with them. The design of any part of the programme is going to make assumptions about what the students already know so that the teaching is appropriately pitched and appropriately paced. What we should be looking for in terms of credit transfer is not just the level of learning and the volume of learning but whether there is a reasonable match between the specific body of knowledge and understanding that the student has and what the programme would expect of them for them to be able to succeed.

  144. I understand that, John, but can I press you on this point. Some universities—and I am not going to name them—are more amenable than others to flexibility and portability and the sort of transfer that we are talking about. The question I am asking you is: Is this an issue that the QAA will look into? It does seem to some of us incredible that we talk about European cooperation—and we have Socrates, Leonardo and all these wonderful schemes across Europe—yet we do not seem to be able to get our act together very well in terms of credit transfer and credit accumulation between different British universities.
  (Mr Randall) I suspect you will find that there are exactly the same problems of people studying elsewhere in Europe, getting recognition and credit for that.

  145. I am sure of it. I am just saying that we ought to put our own house in order first.
  (Mr Randall) We are publishing this month the qualifications framework, and we have descriptors of outcome which include descriptors of outcome that can be used as stopping off points below the level of the honours degree. That was something the Dearing Report called for. If we can translate the sort of accumulated credit that a person has from within the credit structure of an institution to something that has a wider currency (as a recognised qualification that attests to abilities, particularly the sort of level of intellectual achievement that is being reached) that ought to make it easier for an institution to say, "Well, you may not have an exact match in terms of the subject knowledge, the subject may have moved on a bit from when you left, but you have got a certificate that says you have achieved level one or level two within a higher education framework and we can place some reliance on that." I think the work that we have done in developing the qualifications' framework will be of great importance in assisting people to take time out of higher education and for there to be identifiable stopping off points that carry accreditation that is more widely recognised.

  146. And that is something you are going to keep pressing.
  (Mr Randall) That is something that we will be seeking actively now to implement, having spent the last two and a half years in some fairly intensive consultation and having got some descriptors of outcome that everyone is happy to sign up to.


  147. I want to move on, but, Julie, would you like to come in on that?
  (Mrs Swan) I would just like to add to that briefly. So much of what we have been doing as the agency on our developmental agenda has been about promoting explicitness of particular programmes in higher education. We have alluded to it in the evidence we have submitted: subject benchmarking and programme specifications. What we should at least be able to do is to be able to equip the individual student with something which is more portable because it is more explicit about their previous higher education experience; for example, introducing a common form of transcript, introducing publicly available programme specifications which a student will be able to take with them and say, "I have done X, Y and Z, here it is on my transcript, now please give me serious consideration."

  Chairman: I want to switch the questioning a little. Val, would you like to lead on this next section.

Valerie Davey

  148. Thank you. You have illustrated good practice by the document you have for people with disability. I would like to follow that up, related really to the last lot of questioning, because my guess is that there may be students for whom, having some disability, a year in and a year out may be the exact approach which they want to take. First of all, do you have any evidence—coming back to link up with non-completion—whether these different groups, whether it be ethnic groups or people with disabilities, also have problems with completion? Are you looking at that?
  (Mr Randall) We do not have hard statistical evidence that we could point to and say there is a count by ethnicity or a count by disability, again because we are not a collector of statistics. But there are institutions that are recruiting particularly in areas where there is a relatively high ethnic minority population, which will give particular attention to trying to meet the needs of that population. It is a part of their mission. Some of those institutions may also have relatively high non-completion rates. I certainly do not want to damn them for trying to provide those students with higher education, but we have had one or two cases where the view that we have formed, from looking at what is going on in an institution, is that, perhaps, some of the recruitment to programmes has not been appropriate, that people have been taken onto programmes for which they were not yet ready. One of the things the Agency does on behalf of the Department is to carry out the licensing of the Access to Higher Education bodies which are responsible for approving the further education college programmes designed to take mature students into higher education. Those are remarkably successful. The students who come from them do well and tend to complete their courses. I think that one of the things that higher education needs to be perhaps a little more willing to do—it is very difficult when you have a funding system that says, "Get the bums on the seats"—is to say, "You are perhaps not yet ready, but the best thing for you would be to spend a year on an Access programme that will get you to the point at which you can benefit from this course." That is hard for a higher education institution to do, if they are turning away customers.

  149. The tension I see is between the institution saying, "You are not ready and you do not comply," and saying, "We want to meet the needs of the ethnic population." To give you a specific example from the Bristol area that I have picked up: I have youngsters in primary school who speak Arabic. We then say to them, "Thank you very much, we actually at secondary school want you to do German, French and whatever, and, when you get to university, the main entry will be . . ." Should we not have and from your guidance should there not be a recognition of perhaps the multi-cultural, multi-faceted nature of people coming forward, with different expectations other than the traditional, "This is what we have to offer, you are"—or "are not"—"ready for it."
  (Mr Randall) There are two things there. Firstly, I try to use the term "matching" between the applicant and what is on offer. That should not just imply that it is always the applicant who has to be varied to match what is there.

  150. Good. I am delighted to hear you say that on the record.
  (Mr Randall) But, in many cases—and this is where one of the strengths of some of the modular structures comes in—it is possible to design and adapt the programme around the needs of those coming in. I think we are now making that easier to do because we have the universal descriptors for an honour's degree and whatever the particular pathway, whatever the subject mix, every higher education institution knows that they must meet those standards if they are going to award an honours degree. That actually is very liberating, because it is saying to institutions: "You can follow whatever route you think is appropriate to get people there—we will make a judgment about whether you are doing it effectively or not—but there is the yardstick for you to try to meet."

  151. So the yardstick is in terms of standards and not in terms of detail of the content of the course.
  (Mr Randall) Absolutely not.

  152. Or, indeed, of the qualification of those people coming forward.
  (Mr Randall) Absolutely not. It is the outcome that should be achieved. The other thing that I would say in response to that question is that we are working at present on a code of practice on admissions and one of the things that we have in the draft at the moment is pointing out that where all other things are equal in terms of competitive admissions—you know, where you have many more applicants than places—people will look at extra-curricular activity. We are saying that they must be very careful about how they make those judgments. If you say that you will take the person who has shown leadership because they have been running the rugby club, do not just go for people who have been in the rugby club. You must look for leadership and recognise that in different cultural contexts that would be expressed in different ways. For example, in some communities, the likelihood of anybody taking part in the sort of sporting and theatrical activities that will often be favoured is relatively low, so people need to look beyond that. They might say, "Well, wasn't it entrepreneurial skills that you learned from helping to run the family shop? How do we set that in terms of value against the leadership skills you may have had by being the person who helped train the rugby team." Cultural awareness I think is vitally important in that aspect of admissions.

Dr Harris

  153. Just a quick question on this code of practice for admissions, which is something we have been discussing recently in terms of access. All other things being equal, are you thinking about advising universities where there is competitive admission to take into account the educational background of the students?—that someone with three B's who is going to be the only person to get three B's from that particular school might be given preference over someone with three B's where they are the hundredth person in that cohort to get three B's and has had trouble getting to that standard. Is that the sort of extra consideration that in your code of practice for admissions you would urge universities to adopt?
  (Mr Randall) We are not going to tell universities what their particular admission policy should be. What we are saying is that it should be clear and transparent so that a student or potential student would know exactly what it is that a university will attach value to in deciding to whom they should make the offer of a place. Clearly, there will always be a balance to be struck between achievement that has already been demonstrated in a conventional way (perhaps measured by `A' level results) and potential. Somebody may have overcome, perhaps, greater obstacles than somebody else to get to the same point, and, if they have done so, they might have demonstrated greater potential along the way. What I think we would want to say—and this is still draft thinking at this stage—is that universities need to be clear and explicit about what they are doing, so that they can defend the decisions that they have taken, so that people will feel, whatever the decision was in their personal case, that it was taken fairly and on rational grounds.

  154. At the beginning, in answer to your first question, you said that you were relatively relaxed about the increase in non-completion, the perceived increase in non-completion, from around 12/13 per cent to around 17 per cent, because of the expansion that had occurred in higher education and that specifically we were now no longer taking people congregated around the very upper area of the ability range but going further down—appropriately, but going further down where there was a greater risk. Would you say the same applied and has been simultaneous with heading down the income scale? You hinted, in fact, in the second paragraph of your written submission, that that may be a factor. Would you say those things may act in parallel?
  (Mr Randall) I do not have any direct evidence to say that as you go down the income scale it is hard to keep people in, but, intuitively, clearly somebody who is struggling to make ends meet is going to be, firstly, devoting less of their energies to their studies and, secondly, may simply have to go out and earn some money and be unable to continue. I come back to what I think our primary purpose is. Lots of people want us to do lots of things; we have to try to keep a bit of a focus and say that what we are here for is to address the academic performance of higher education and to look at the ways in which the academic support and the academic systems of universities and colleges can in this case assist in retaining the students that they have got in. We are not the body that determines what student funding is and we are not the body that determines the distribution of the Parliamentary vote for higher education. What we can do is to say, "Those are circumstances that are given; within those, how well is a university performing in terms of the discharge of its academic responsibilities?" That is what we are here to try to hold them accountable for and to give them guidance on.

  155. You would not want to be led up the garden path. Looking at the HEFCE performance indicators and noticing that, say, the University of North London has a 19 per cent non-completion rate and Oxford Brookes has a seven per cent non-completion rate, you would not want to assume that that was because the University of North London was taking people who were finding it more difficult academically, because, if a factor—a factor amongst several—was the fact that those were from a poorer background and therefore found it difficult to sustain the levels of debt that they are invited to do to variable degrees and always have been, you would want to be aware of that, so you could make appropriate recommendations on the academic aspects which are your responsibility. You have to bear in mind founding factors, so you can weight the areas that are your responsibility.
  (Mr Randall) You have to be aware that both those factors can be operating. In terms of the first judgment that I think we would be making, we would be saying, "OK, if it is a 19 per cent drop-out rate, that is a relatively high one." We would want to look at it in relation to the individual subject, where it might be higher or lower, and then to look at the issues I mentioned earlier: Are we adequately identifying students who are going to stand a reasonable chance of successful completion? If there is a factor that the university points out to us: "We are losing some of these people because they cannot afford to carry on," then I think that from our academic interest we would be saying, "Well, have you structured your programme in such a way that you have got identified exit points, that will allow a person to leave with some accreditation/certification of their achievement to that point? And does that match up to a qualifications' framework that everybody else is signed up to?—so they are leaving, admittedly before they had originally intended, but with something that has a currency in the outside world for both employment purposes and for subsequent return to higher education."

  Chairman: We only have a few minutes left and I do want to cover teaching research and quality of teaching issues. Gordon, would you like to lead on that next stage?

Mr Marsden

  156. Yes. You made it quite clear at several points, John, that you see the primary role of QAA as examining, as you have said, academic effectiveness, how academics balance their time—"personal time management" I think you said—between teaching, research and administrative demands. What evidence do you have from your reviews that that balance is working correctly? I am thinking, particularly, of the ability of younger academics to do a decent amount of teaching and support students who might particularly need it in the context of completion, as opposed to having to do pure research.

  (Mr Randall) I think we have got a better balance just as a result of the existence of review at subject level of teaching. We have had a system where, for a longer period, there has been a premium on research because of the research assessment exercise and the way in which it drove funding. I think it was necessary to get in some balance that made it clear that universities would be judged also on the quality of their teaching. Therefore, overall, I think we have got a slightly better balance now. I still look back 30-odd years to the excitement and stimulation of research-led teaching. Being taught by people who were active researchers is a wonderful experience for any student. Not everybody is going to be taught by high-level active researchers, but even institutions that are not themselves research-led should find time for the personal scholarship of academic staff, so that they can keep abreast of those developments in their subject and transmit that to their students. I would not want to get into a position in which we assume that higher education teachers had to spend all of their time on the teaching function and that there was no room for personal scholarship and research.

  Mr Marsden: With respect, I think you are setting up—in these non-sexist times—a strawperson there because I do not think anyone would argue that. The crucial question is whether in fact academics have enough time, because of issues like research assessment exercise—which still produce rather large carrots on an individual basis than TQA would do—to transfer their research into the teaching of their students. When we were at Surrey yesterday the Vice-Chancellor there was pretty scathing about the research assessment exercise and the way in which it could hobble, particularly young members of staff, in that respect, even though they themselves were very keen to have teaching that was research-led.


  157. Do you have any view on what contribution the research assessment exercise has from the QAA's point of view? Is it hobbling? Is it undermining? Is it doing damage to the quality of our teaching institutions?
  (Mr Randall) I think it has the potential to produce a measure of distortion because the stakes are very high for some institutions. In the current exercise, where there are rumours around that if you do not get a four in the research assessment exercise there is not going to be any money, is producing a fairly sort of frenetic response, I think, in a number of people that the research assessment exercise is attracting a very large amount of management time within institutions. Coming back to Gordon's point about the balance and the opportunities that are provided for staff and the pressures on their time, I think that more could be done by institutions to help people manage their time. I think that there is a bit of a culture in some parts of higher education that does not like anything that looks like managerialism, but, actually, when you have a job that inherently has within it a number of different strands that have to be balanced, people do need to manage their own time and it is a responsibility of those in management positions, heads of departments and elsewhere in the universities, to help, particularly their junior staff, with the management of their overall time, so that overall it is used effectively.

Dr Harris

  158. Are you worried with the difficulty of recruiting into academic posts, because of the labour market more than anything, and the relatively low pay compared to the comparable professions for graduates? Are you worried about the quality of teaching in the sector?
  (Mr Randall) Some disciplines clearly do have problems. But I do not think that pay is the sort of thing that attracts people to a career in higher education.

  159. Clearly not!
  (Mr Randall) There are other benefits. I mean, I look at my own past involvement. I previously worked for the Law Society. There are some very high salaries available for high-flying lawyers in the City but there are also still people who choose to work in academic law in university departments. I think there will always be people who make a choice that includes factors other than salary; but, at the end of the day, there is a mortgage to pay—for most people—and it is bound to have some influence.

  Chairman: John, Julie, can I thank you for your attendance. This has been a pretty short session and thank you for answering so many questions. There are areas that we have left untapped. Perhaps you would not mind us furthering our deliberations by writing to you.

  Valerie Davey: Good idea.


  160. Indeed, there were one or two areas that were not just to do with staying on retention rates and all that, and, indeed, we have been contacted by one or two institutions who are concerned about their inability to gain university status which they think you are holding up and we would like to correspond on that. Some members of the Committee were particularly interested in learning from you how you view IT skills and how universities are preparing students for their courses in terms of the level of IT skills that they were requiring. If we could correspond on those, but just put them on record, that would be most useful.
  (Mr Randall) Yes. May I say one sentence on university titles. It is a big subject, but the legislation that Parliament has put in place provides for university title to be granted; it does not provide for university title to be withdrawn other than by an individual Act of Parliament to remove that status. The same applies to any grant of degree awarding powers. For that reason, there is a properly rigorous process that is gone through where we advise the government departments and the government department advise the Privy Council. I think, given the legislative framework, it would be wrong for it to be anything other than rigorous.

  Chairman: Thank you.

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