Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 260 - 279)



  260. But it is a great temptation, is it not, for not your own institution but a newer university that really feels that it has got to establish its reputation and win its spurs, it is a great temptation, is it not, for them to go down an alternative route? We have heard, the Vice-Chancellor of Surrey University, last week, was passionate about what he regarded as the poaching practices in some universities, to get members of staff simply to boost their RAE credentials?
  (Professor Green) That would not happen in the new universities, largely because, I think, we are much more realistic about the balance of our activities. In my own institution, and Geoffrey can speak about his own, I have actually tried deliberately to broaden the notion of what research is, and part of our mission is actually to focus very much on applied research, not the sort of thing that gets money from the RAE, meeting the needs of the local business community and the regional agenda, and that seems to me far more important to invest in that area than to be trying to recruit people from other research-intensive universities.

  261. I noticed Geoffrey Copland raising an eyebrow, at one point in what I said, or whether it was an eyebrow or sort of horror at this suggestion or agreement with the proposal, I am not sure; but would you like to comment more broadly?
  (Professor Copland) On which particular part?

  262. The question of poaching staff, and the transfer fees?
  (Professor Copland) I think the reason I raised an eyebrow is that some of the excellent academics that are in our institutions are precisely being targeted by certain other institutions, who can offer them an environment where there is a much larger research base from which to operate. Now I have to say, I am delighted that my colleagues are not actually accepting those offers that are being made to them; not entirely true across the sector. There are some real signals being given about the RAE, and it is important, it is not just the money, it is actually the whole derivation of the position of universities that arise from that.

Valerie Davey

  263. Would you agree, there is the other comment that was made at Surrey, which was that we only hear the transfer story, what we do not hear is the extra funding which has to go within a university to retain the staff, and that that factor is also depreciative of the outcome, that it caused a great upheaval?
  (Professor Copland) I could not speak for another university. How people respond to this will depend on institutions and institutional policy. That has not been a policy that I have had to adopt in the University of Westminster, I am pleased to say.
  (Professor Peters) It is a very tricky area you are getting into, and there are certainly different—

  264. We are trained to ask direct questions.
  (Professor Peters) Yes; good. There are certainly differences of views within the sector, and there are within institutions about it. I will make a couple of observations, I think. Firstly, I would endorse the point that Diana made about reflective practitioners; certainly, research and scholarship has to be a key issue in that. In my own institution, one of our half-dozen five-rated departments is one which is about teaching and learning, and so we have academics in all departments, but certainly across, who are engaged in researching on the teaching and learning process. So they count in the RAE, they earn their spurs in the RAE, so research is respected for their research on their teaching. I think the other comment I would make is that, just in relation to our own experience, we looked at the quality of what was going on in our social science foundation course; what we found was that the academics who were being most successful in that area were people like Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, the most cited geographer in the country, who were also the leading researchers. So one can see real evidence.

  265. So, in fact, there was a seamless web between their research and their broader communication?
  (Professor Peters) Certainly, people who know their subject very well are very good at teaching it.

  Chairman: I am going to have to suspend. Enough Members have indicated that they would like another 15 minutes with you, if you would not mind another 15 minutes when we come back. Thank you.

  The Committee suspended from 5.25 pm to 5.38 pm for a division in the House

  Chairman: Gordon Marsden wants to finish up on the recruitment side.

Mr Marsden

  266. If I can just sort of follow the issue of recruitment and retention through. Again, we have heard, from other evidence and from other witnesses, a concern that salaries in the private sector are attracting people who perhaps, at one stage, would have gone into university research into that sector, and that therefore they are having critical shortages, and that has been a view particularly expressed in terms of the sciences and associated subjects. Is this your experience, in your own universities, and, if it is so, again, I am thinking particularly of younger staff, how does this contribute to problems with the quality of teaching and an increasing likelihood that students themselves will not feel that they are getting the support that they should have, at the level that they should have?
  (Professor Green) Shall I give a quick response, while Geoffrey thinks about it.


  267. Diana, you have got 30,000 experiences to tell us about, with 30,000 students?
  (Professor Green) I think it is variable, and I think again the problem is not as straightforward as you might imagine. I think it is increasingly difficult to recruit young teachers in some subject areas, not simply because they go off into industry because they get paid more money, but actually because fewer are coming forward, having got a degree. The normal route was, you got a degree, you wanted to go into teaching, you did an MA, you did a PhD, and whatever, and we are finding, in my own subject, economics, it is very difficult to get people with PhDs in economics.

Mr Marsden

  268. So they are opting out before they go into research?
  (Professor Green) Yes; so I think that is part of the problem. There is also another problem, insofar as, some subject areas, it is quite difficult, and some universities are finding it difficult, to recruit, mathematics, IT; and so, yes, we are going to find, I think, across the sector, there are regional differences, and there are institutional differences, and it depends what you are looking for, I think. And so it is quite complex.


  269. It is the only sort of sector that I have come across, really, most of the industries that I am familiar with, apart from this one, if I can call it an industry for a moment, would say that, nobody today has mentioned pay for university staff. There is an argument that goes, in any organisation, poorly-paid staff, low-motivated staff, producing a poor product, well that leads, in university terms, to poor retention. Are you telling me that, on the one hand, you responded to Gordon Marsden in terms of, I was not sure whether you thought there was a problem about recruiting good academics into universities, but is there not a problem around poor pay, poor motivation, less good performance?
  (Professor Green) There is; and it is more complicated than that, because the career of being a lecturer in higher education today is very different from what it used to be years ago, it is a bit like teaching really, in terms of whether or not, in terms of status and rewards, it is appropriate.

  270. Teachers have had significant real increases in wages since 1979, where university teachers have had none?
  (Professor Green) The other thing, if I may, is that, because of the framework within which we operate, I am choosing my words carefully here, certainly at junior levels, we operate a national bargaining system, and so the extent to which you can appropriately use incentives, as you would in the private sector, actually to recognise in terms of, whatever, and I do not just mean pay, but whatever particular package, if I put that together, you could use to attract young, bright people in, you are constrained, because that is the system that we work in. So there are some problems, and I do not see any evidence that they are going to get any better while we operate the current system.

  271. Is not that because British universities, compared with, say, the United States, are a bit stick in the mud; in the United States, when they get teacher shortages, they have a range of mechanisms, including building start homes, nice homes on the campus, where the young lecturers can start off their life? Are we not just a bit conservative in this country, in terms of the way we tackle the problem of shortages?
  (Professor Copland) We are constrained by the terms under which we get our grant from the Funding Council, and that is actually a very important issue. Universities like Diana's and mine have a very significant proportion of our income comes through the Funding Council, with a direct contract, with a set of conditions about how that funding can be used. It would be quite difficult to divert funding from the core business of teaching into doing the sort of venture that you are suggesting, I would like to do it but I could not use public funds for that. So the question is how we lever funds in other ways to try to address some of these problems. And coming back to Gordon's question, certainly, from where I sit, in the centre of London, there is a serious difficulty in finding young academics to teach subjects such as Information Technology full-time, but also there is a good opportunity for us to work in partnership with the private sector to get people to do some teaching part-time for us whilst working for their main companies. We are exploring that, there is an opportunity there. That is a short-term solution, but it does not provide us with the long-term base of teaching, scholarship and research, that we have been talking about earlier, that we need to build up. So there is a problem, working for us. And, as the Committee will know, we are at the moment in the middle of an industrial dispute, which is not very far away from what we have just been discussing.

Mr Marsden

  272. If I can just pick up on a point which Diana made; you rightly said, I think, Diana, that it was not just a question of salaries, it was a question of the whole package. And I accept entirely what you say about the restrictions on the use of public money, but should not universities perhaps be more innovative and entrepreneurial in attracting private money, perhaps to solve a part of that package? When the Committee was in the States and we went to New York University, we heard how they had embarked on an extremely ambitious building programme to house a proportion of their academics, right in the centre of Manhattan. Now what is to stop the University of Westminster, and I am conscious, in the South East, of the particular problems with housing, particularly for younger academics, going outside to a potential sponsor, I do not know, it may even be someone in the building sector, a Wimpey, or whoever, and actually trying to get some sort of sponsorship deal? You might think the point is a whimsical one, but should universities themselves not be more innovative in exploring those sorts of options, given the constraints on public funding which you have described?
  (Professor Copland) You are not being whimsical, and, yes, this is exactly the sort of initiative we want to explore with the private sector, for student housing and housing for staff, and this is something that we are working on; but it is not easy. In the London housing market, this is not seen as a high-value investment for the private sector, there are other, high-value investments, so that we get into discussions with the Mayor's office about affordable housing and issues around that. So we are not doing nothing about it, but it is not an easy problem to solve.


  273. The head of the alumni organisation at NYU, New York University, said to us, "Even in Manhattan, if you go to a bank and you say, `We want to build, or convert, a building, and when we've finished it we will fill it with people who pay rent, and we determine the rents,' no bank turns you away from that sort of proposition, and we've now built 10,000 residential units in the last ten years, from a zero start." So I do not want you to answer that, but I thought it was interesting.
  (Professor Copland) It is interesting.

  274. The economist in Geoff is leaping out at me?
  (Professor Peters) No, not the economist in me, Diana is the economist. I was going to broaden the issue very slightly. In general, I think that the sector is in a stronger position now than it was a year ago, in terms of the expectation about public funding, and therefore the freedom that we have got in terms of the position we find ourselves in, in relation to staff, and we are seeing a real terms increase in the funding. I was going to make a general point. Teachers and researchers in universities are committed to students, and therefore they are committed to universities and university life, and to some extent, therefore, they put up with the pay and conditions that they have, accordingly. It is certainly my experience that higher education and further education are finding considerable problems, as they try to modernise their teaching and learning methods, over what one might call support staff, people who are coming in and using new technology, because those people are not necessarily committed to working in the higher education sector, or the further education sector, and they can, very quickly, pick up similar jobs, designing web pages, CD ROMs, whatever, in other sectors. And, there, they are at a premium. And, certainly, I have been in a committee meeting with a further education principal, where she said that actually she would have to pay more than her own salary in order to get the sort of person she needed to manage the network, to make them part of—

Mr Marsden

  275. And, presumably, the further we move and the more rapidly we move down the e-university route and dissemination of higher education via ICT methods, the more acute that problem is going to be for funding, and ultimately for Government?
  (Professor Peters) Yes; that is part of our evidence to the Funding Council about the e-university initiative, that that was a risk. In our own case, we are trying to live with the fact that we think we are training, on the job, people who are going to move across, and we are actually looking for industrial partners to accept that people are going to come and train with us while they learn about web design, and so on, in order to help us, that they then will move on.

  Chairman: We are getting near to the end of this session, but I want to bring in Evan here, because he has been waiting patiently to ask a number of questions.

Dr Harris

  276. The HEFCE study on non-completion in higher education found that the personal finances of students were an issue in retention, frequently cited, and the AUT in their written evidence points out that that research found that students from lower socio-economic groups were far more likely to withdraw because of financial difficulties than students from the highest socio-economic groups. Would you care to comment on that?
  (Professor Copland) That is consistent with the evidence that we are collecting inside our own university. To expand on that, people from the lower socio-economic groups, there is a whole series of factors involved here, it is not simply money, but it is perception of debt, it is perception of what they may be facing. These students, who are coming from backgrounds where the sums of money being quoted by the media, and I am not saying these are necessarily real, but the sort of headline figures that are appearing in the press sometimes, are leading students to say, "Can I really get myself into a situation where I am going to be in debt," in their terms, "to that amount of money?". Given that, particularly at the moment, we have a very—

  277. But that is an issue for access, that is an issue for whether they apply at all, in the first instance?
  (Professor Copland) No; no, it is often when they have actually started. They have got into the university, they have started in, they look at where they are at the end of the first year, financially, then they say, "Well, alright, I've already built up this much debt." We are finding, certainly in Westminster, well over 80 per cent of our full-time students are in paid employment, at the same time as studying, in order to help to reduce this, and that clearly has an impact on their ability to study to the levels that we would expect them to, and they would like to. We then find ourselves in a situation where quite a lot of these students are being offered permanent jobs as a result of the work they have been undertaking, in vacations and during term-time. There is a very strong temptation to say, "I will take that job now;" they may well return, some years later, to complete their studies, back to our credit accumulation transfer, that we were talking about earlier, they may return to the Open University, they may return to us, or they may return somewhere else. So we are seeing a very different pattern of behaviour emerging amongst students.


  278. When we were in Kingston, in Surrey, there were voices there that said that, actually, the problem has not changed pre the changes in financial arrangements for students and post, but that was always a problem before, both in terms of retention, in terms of less well-off students dropping out more frequently than well-off students, and that there was not a dramatic difference between the new arrangements and the old arrangements. Now what is the truth of this?
  (Professor Copland) It probably varies from institution to institution, and depending on the nature of the student body. We are certainly seeing an increasing number of students declaring that one of the reasons for their discontinuing their studies is the financial situation in which they find themselves.

  279. But you said earlier, when I asked you the introductory question, I got the feeling that you thought the drop-out rate was actually acceptable, you did not seem to be very concerned about it, and you did not seem to see it as a problem. Are you saying it is a problem, it is a serious problem, or is it something you would expect and it is a part of everyday life in the university, that you will get a drop-out of round about 8 to 10 per cent?
  (Professor Green) Can I give you a statistic from my own institution. I said in the earlier part of the evidence that I was going to make a contentious point in terms of the number of students who were being excluded for debt. The total number of student exclusions for debt, of any sort, in my institution, has increased by 17 per cent from 1997 to two years later. The number of students excluded for debt is going up, despite the point that Geoffrey was making, despite the fact that students are actually trying to work to support themselves. There are some tensions there that we need to be aware of and we need to manage. This goes back to the very beginning of the evidence, where we have to think about the nature of higher education that we have at the moment, and the extent to which we are supporting both, picking up Evan's point, the extent that once we have got students there institutions need to be able to manage their experience, so that if they have to work we can support them while they are working, that we have the flexibility, that we spoke about earlier, that will allow them to work and to earn, so that that does not happen. That is the problem we have got.

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