Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)



Valerie Davey

  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 that happen?
  (Professor Copland) I would not use the word redirected; that sounds very directive. They may be offered the opportunity to consider—

  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 about—sorry, 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 on things?
  (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 not, Nick?

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 than maturity.

  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, may be.

  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.

Mr Marsden

  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.

Charlotte Atkins

  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.

Mr Marsden

  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 teach?
  (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 year?
  (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.

Mr Marsden

  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 different universities.

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