Examination of witnesses (Questions 240
TUESDAY 23 JANUARY 2001
and PROFESSOR GEOFFREY
240. Can I follow this up quite specifically,
in looking at the students in front of you and the courses you
have got. There are the situations where one course is full of,
as you say, highly qualified people, you have got the people who
failed by one point, but you have got spaces on another course;
how often do they get redirected, in that situation, where you
actually do want to fill the places that you have still got in
a related subject, it does not have to be the other end of the
spectrum of science/arts, but actually it is near but it is not
quite the same? So this person cannot do that, they cannot do
the A but they can do A minus B, or whatever it might be; does
(Professor Copland) I would not use the word redirected;
that sounds very directive. They may be offered the opportunity
241. By UCAS, or by you?
(Professor Copland) By the institution; it is institutions
that make the offers. But that comes back to the point that we
started with, that an inappropriate choice of subject area to
study can lead to students being disappointed and not completing
their studies. So as soon as you offer an opportunity for somebody
to take a subject which is not the one for which they originally
applied, but the admission tutors in their analysis think they
might be appropriate, that they will have the qualifications to
do, you have to be quite clear that the student wants to do it
and understands why they would take that place. Simply saying,
"We can't offer you a subject in A, but we can offer you
a subject in A minus B, or A plus B," as you suggested, may
actually be one of the recipes that leads to the sort of breakdown
that the student has to face when they realise they are doing
a subject they do not want to do, and then may opt out of it.
242. I wanted to come back to this phrase which
was used earlier, about the lack of preparedness; now the lack
of preparedness is either rectified by the institution or by the
school or by the individual, and I am not quite sure, in the context
of the course, and let us just stay with this, in the fairly narrow
band of getting square pegs into square holes, getting the people
who want to do the right course into those courses, how much responsibility
lies then with the institution to make sure that the information
about their courses is available, at the right time, in the right
place. Is that, do you think, now being covered, that institutions,
early enough, in appropriate literature, to the schools, to the
colleges, to the wider public, are getting that message out, on
e-mail, on the website, or wherever?
(Professor Copland) I think we have shown considerable
improvement in that, in recent years, particularly because of
the use of new technologies. It is much easier to get current,
useful information about the structure of programmes than it was
through the old paper-based prospectus approach.
243. So that has improved. What about the schools;
do you think they are doing their jobs efficiently, to ensure
that youngsters, in particular, school-age youngsters, are getting
the right information?
(Professor Green) I think it is patchy, and I think
one of the interesting developments, particularly since there
is a bit of a regional shift as well, in terms of where students
are beginning to think about going to university, so in my area
we are a net importer of students and have been for many, many
years, but that is beginning to shift slightly, so the response
of my institution is to say, well, we have got to start thinking
again about our local markets more actively, and not just for
part-time. And so to make very positive connections with school,
and not just with secondary schools, with primary schools as well,
so that we actually start to build up an expectation about what
higher education might mean, we bring young children into the
university as well, so that you break down some of the barriers
of the perception about what universities are about. And you cannot
start early enough, in terms of actually getting an understanding
and preparing a student for what it might be like.
244. I agree, because that brings you back to
the responsibility of the individual, who clearly has to do the
work in order to find out and know what they want to do. And this
is where I am slightly worried about the, I think, still, lack
of flexibility of an institution, and tell me that the flexibility
is denied you, if you like, but if you get twice as many applicants
for one course, and another course has no applicants, then it
seems to me the university has to change and say, "Okay;
so this course isn't what students want, but this one is very
important, and clearly." And then you have got to come back
to the main funder, of course, and say, "Well, actually,
do we want 100 per cent classics university students, at this
stage, or do we want 100 per cent engineers?", and where
does the debate go then?
(Professor Green) That is about the university managing
itself, in terms of actually its changing environment. And one
of the big changes that is taking place now, particularly, I think,
since undergraduate students now are making a contribution to
the cost of their education, is that actually we can no longer
be a supplier of our wares, we cannot do the Marks and Spencer
bit, we have actually got to think aboutsorry, it is an
inappropriate analogy, in the circumstances. But it is very important
actually to take notice of really what it is, changes in the interest
of our potential students, who are much more informed, better
informed, on the whole, about career opportunities, about how
higher education can actually fit in with what they want to do.
Valerie Davey: I would hope that there is going
to be more impact. Of the partners in this arrangement, I think
the student will take the lead, in the not too distant future,
and that will be to the benefit of pretty well everyone involved.
Chairman: I was just worried that we were going
to go down the path of, I was teaching in a university when there
was a vast expansion of students that wanted to study social sciences,
and we expanded the university system at that time to try to get
more technologists and scientists, and the people that actually
turned up were not quite willing to do that. There was a suggestion,
at one time, in my own department, that the next bunch of students
that arrived we just diverted them to electronic engineering,
but we never actually got round to that.
Mr St. Aubyn
245. Students who enter via Clearing perhaps
might be in this group who are sort of pushed into the course
that suits the university rather than themselves. I suppose, one
way you could test whether this was a good or a bad thing would
be to look at their drop-out rate compared with other groups of
students. In your own experience, in your universities, do you
find that the students who enter via Clearing are more likely
to drop out from their course, or not?
(Professor Green) I think there are two answers to
that, yes and no. The yes is that, in terms of identifying students
who are more at risk, those that have come through Clearing are
quite clearly more at risk because they may not necessarily have,
for whatever reason, made the grade, may not have got the institution
or course of their choice. But, at the same time, the answer may
be no, in terms of the extent to which students themselves, quite
interestingly, over the last three years, I would think, have
become much better informed; certainly, five years ago, it was
a much more open sort of system. Now I have been impressed by
the extent to which students have a clear set of questions that
they want to ask, they know, and they actually go around and they
ring institutions, they visit institutions, even in Clearing they
actually know what they want, they tick off, and if you do not
meet their criteria they will go somewhere else. It is becoming
much more focused, I think. So I think, over time, that is beginning
to reduce a bit; but, potentially, yes, they are more at risk,
simply because they may not have got their first choice.
(Professor Peters) The Open University does not have
any experience of Clearing, we do not have anything to do with
it. But I would just support the point which ties in with that,
which is about students, at all levels, becoming much more informed
consumers and are acting much more in command of the situation,
and I agree that that is a healthier situation, rather than students
feeling that the institution is on the receiving end and the institution
makes all the decisions about whether it lets them in or not.
246. I think UCAS, some time ago, gave us evidence
about, in their view, those who entered through Clearing did not
show any greater propensity to drop out, perhaps because when
they make the decision they are a year older, and perhaps that
means, in many ways, they are better informed about what it is
they are looking for. Would you like to comment on that slant
(Professor Copland) I would agree with what Diana
said, I think students are becoming much more aware of how to
find out information and much more concerned not to be bounced
into an inappropriate decision. Now it is interesting, and I do
not have the figures, but I am told that the QAA, this summer,
had a huge number of hits on its website during the Clearing period,
apparently by people wanting to look at the Quality Assessment
scores of departments, so they could make their comparisons, whilst
they were in this process of making rapid decisions. Now I think
that is a very interesting change, but that would not have happened,
well, of course, it was not available before, but that would not
have happened, I think, ten years ago. So I think we do have a
much more informed body who are making decisions; we are therefore
less likely, we still will have some who will make poor decisions,
less likely to get poor decisions. So I would agree with what
Diana said. I do not think that there is a significant difference
in the performance rate of people who come through Clearing and
those who do not.
Mr St. Aubyn: Is there an argument here, if
those who have come through Clearing are staying on at the same
rate as those who did not, is there a sense in which their greater
maturity and experience a year on, when they are making this decision,
offsets the limitations, or the time limits, that they have got
to cope with? Given that they can cope with that, is this an argument
for having more post-qualification applications and encouraging
more students to defer their choice of university until their
A-level results come through?
247. Would you like post-qualification?
(Professor Green) Yes, we would. Geoffrey and I have
answered that question before, I think.
Chairman: That is what Nick is after, is it
Mr St. Aubyn
248. Well, no; but is this a good argument in
favour of post-qualifications, that it does mean that the student
is that bit older and a bit more aware of where they want to go
next, when it is a few months away rather than when it is more
than a year away?
(Professor Green) One of the reasons why I would be
in favour of this is that actually it reduces the uncertainty
for both the students and the institution, and the student would
not be necessarily more mature, but it would be a better piece
of information, so to speak, they would have more time actually
to make an informed choice, and it removes the sort of disappointment
bit, or might do. But I think it would be in terms of informed
choices on both sides that I would be more in favour of it, rather
249. One of the schools in my constituency is
now promoting the baccalaureate as their sixth form option, and
the baccalaureate result comes out, I think, a month or two earlier
than the A-level result. Have you much experience yet of handling
candidates who are applying "post-baccalaureate" qualification,
and can you comment on them as a group and how easily they have
fitted in, and whether that has proved an advantage or a disadvantage?
(Professor Copland) It is still a small number. But,
for all the reasons you articulate, I think it is a model that
we should be looking at. It seems to be much more realistic because
they know what results they have got. That is the other part of
the UCAS application system, people can be very unrealistic in
their expectations; if you have actually got the examination results
in front of you, it can be quite clear that some opportunities
are not available, and others, that you had not thought were,
250. We have heard what the QAA's website does,
and UCAS obviously has a website; now that the Learning and Skills
Councils are going to become responsible for all sixth form teaching,
do you think they have a role to play in making sure that students
are well informed about the choices they make next, do you think
that should become part of their responsibility?
(Professor Green) I think any agency involved in the
process of moving people on needs to be involved in that process
in helping them on, yes; how they are going to do it I think is
going to be a much more interesting question.
251. I would like particularly to take up with
you, because two of you come from new universities and the third
person comes from a totally unique university, the issue of teaching
quality; and we have heard a lot in the inquiry so far about the
balance between teaching and research, how research feeds into
teaching and the expectations of students, in relation to that.
But I would really like to ask you all, as people who are at universities
where teaching, historically, in the short period of time you
have existed as universities, has been particularly privileged,
whether you think there is an increasing demand-led or concern
among students about the quality of teaching, not least in light
of the fact that they are now required to pay tuition fees?
(Professor Copland) The simple answer to that is,
yes, students are much more aware of what they believe they should
be receiving from institutions, they can sometimes be unrealistic
in what they can expect. But you will, of course, understand that
a lot of the students actually, in Sheffield Hallam and in Westminster,
have always paid fees, because they are part-time, as the Open
University, they have always paid fees. And I think it is very
important that, in the debate on fees, we remember that a very
significant proportion of the higher education sector has always
been in fee-paying mode.
252. And further education.
(Professor Copland) And they have always been demanding
of what it is they get.
253. Good consumers. Geoff?
(Professor Peters) There were a number of issues in
that question. Of course, like all part-time students, Open University
students paid fees and were demanding. I think that the change
in full-time has changed the climate in general though; certainly,
we are seeing more consumerist attitudes from our students, and
that is partly to do with society, and may be to do with full-time
as well. I think the teaching/research issue is quite a complicated
one, really. I think the important point to make is that there
have been quite enormous strides within institutions, all institutions,
in terms of upping the status of teaching within institutions.
The creation of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, all institutions
finding mechanisms for rewarding staff who are particularly good
at teaching and learning, all of those things, I think, have moved
the position forward to one where individual staff feel valued
for their contribution to learning and teaching, in a way which
was not always the case in all institutions in the past. I think
that the general view of all universities, it certainly would
be ours, though, is that there is a very important link between
research and teaching, and one of the things one needs to make
sure, at the individual academic level, is that there are the
mechanisms by which staff can pursue scholarship and be recognised
as such by the students as well as by their peers, at the same
time as being excellent teachers.
254. Diana, would you like to take up that point,
particularly with the supplementary question, do we do enough
to reward or to encourage particularly younger teaching staff
to turn their research to good account in the courses that they
(Professor Green) Two things; if I can build on something
Geoff said. I think there is evidence that many universities these
days are taking teaching and learning much more seriously, not
least because of the activities of the QAA, but also because of
the expectations of their students. And certainly in my own institution,
we have spent, since I arrived, a lot of time looking at actually
how we can do the balancing so that those staff who opt for research
are not valued over and above those who actually make a career
in teaching, and we have introduced teaching fellowships, similarly,
so that actually we try to even the balance. And, certainly, one
of the major strategic priorities in my university is learning
and teaching and how we can actually address these sorts of issues.
I do not know though how you change, if I look at the sector as
a whole, the balance of values between teaching and research,
when you have a system which is skewed so that both status and
rewards, in many universities, primarily are geared to research.
In my own institution, our model, if you like, is the teacher/researcher,
and we try to encourage, we are not a teaching only institution,
we expect all staff to do scholarship and to make their own contribution
to research, a role that is different from those who specialise
in research. We would hope that, as part of a reflective practitioner,
they think about the applications of the research to teaching,
but they cannot do what we all used to do, what I did when I was
a teacher, which was to use my research as a basis, necessarily,
for my teaching, because there may not be a market for that.
255. But, surely, in that case, of the weighing
up, you are saying we are not masters in our own house, in that
respect; surely, the responsibility, therefore, lies with HEFCE
to re-evaluate the balance that it gives, in terms of its funding,
in these respects, is it not?
(Professor Green) I would endorse that, because I
think it is skewed; but, at the end of the day, I think institutions
like my own recognise the system that we are in and find other
ways of generating income so that we can even that balance. It
is the only way you can handle it.
256. But you are a big, powerful lobby. How
many are there in the modern university group, 34?
(Professor Copland) Thirty-three.
257. If you do not like it, it always interests
me that, is there a role for someone who is not a researcher,
who does not do any research, but actually knows all the literature,
right across the board, reads everything, and is a brilliant teacher?
I just sometimes believe that, from the new university side, you
really ought to be more passionate advocates of that, rather than
always going with the feeling that teaching has to be linked to
research, and not stand up for the brilliant teacher who really
provides the first-class, for example, the very first-class first
year in a university course. I feel you just do not champion it
enough; what is wrong with a brilliant teacher who really gets
someone in the first year keen on the subject, and then gets away
with that first year when they do not drop out after the first
(Professor Copland) There is nothing wrong with that
at all, and we did use the word scholarship, in connection with
research, in this discussion; because the brilliant teacher still
needs to be aware of the developments of their subject, and that
comes through the scholarship that they do in reading around and
understanding where their subject is going, and how they can enthuse
the first-year student about the future of the subject that they
are working in.
258. Some people would argue that someone that
really knows the breadth of the literature and keeps up to date
with it is more of a scholar, in many senses, than someone who
just knows about one thinker in unthinkable detail?
(Professor Copland) I would not disagree with you.
But, the fact is, we have a funding mechanism that gives a very
high premium to a specific definition of research and its performance,
and there are many good scholars in universities around the country,
and certainly in the three universities sitting here, who do not
fall neatly into that definition. That is a problem for those
of us in modern universities.
259. I was going on to quote some evidence that
we had had from the AUT, because I think this bears on the question
of how students, and we are concerned, very focused, in this inquiry,
on student retention and how students feel sometimes short-changed
by the system, and I quote what the AUT, in their evidence, said
to us. They said: "Owing to demands from other areas, particularly
pressure to contribute to the RAE," (Research Assessment
Exercise) "there is now less time for staff to offer support
to students who encounter personal or study-related problems."
Is that an assessment you would agree with?
(Professor Green) I think it depends on the institution.
That would certainly be true of a research-intensive university;
it is not true of my university, because the extent to which we
would encourage staff to concentrate their effort on the Research
Assessment Exercise is extremely selective. And so I think there
are differences in terms of the culture and the priorities of