Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 298 - 319)




  298. It is my pleasure to welcome Sir Michael Bett, Pro-Chancellor of Aston University and Chairman of the Bett Committee, David Packham, the Registrar of Aston University and Professor John Beath, the Head of School of Social Sciences, University of St Andrews, and Chairman of the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics. That is the most formal address you will get this morning. Welcome indeed. You know this Select Committee has been looking at higher education, first in terms of access to the higher education—that is a report that we have nearly completed. The present phase of our inquiry is to look at student retention. We have made, and are continuing to make, visits. We have been to Surrey and Kingston last week and we are off next week to various institutions in and around Manchester. Although today we have pretty wide-ranging questions I shall be asking members of my Committee and you to come back to the question of retention. I would like to open the questioning by asking, the Bett Committee, Sir Michael, seemed to flag up some very important warning signs about the quality of teaching if we went on as we were going. What I would like to draw you out on this morning, to start, is how far you think that the signs that you saw, the worrying signs, were already influencing and have, perhaps, influenced more today, by now, the quality of teaching that we see in universities?
  (Sir Michael Bett) Thank you very much for asking us here. I should say that I am very grateful that you will go to the more informal style from now on. When we looked at higher education we were looking at the staff rather than the students. We hope that we took the students interests into account, but it was about the staff. However, I do think there are various aspects of what we discovered that affect the retention of students. The first one, obviously, is the amount of money in the system and what that does to the quality of people that are retained in the higher education system as academics and as teachers. I think, if anything, the situation will be worse today than it was then, though I know that the Government is taking certain measures which I suppose I would describe more as sticking plaster than strategic at this stage. If I can just give you an example, today with the changes in the funding arrangements for students there is a greater and greater likelihood that students will build up some amount of debt. It is not unusual for students to build up £10,000 or £12,000 worth of debt. Let us just take a very bright one that you spot and you think, "Gosh, let us persuade him to do a PhD". At that point you offer him something round £7,000. He has a debt of £12,000 on his back and he is offered £7,000, so if he takes that job the likelihood is that he will build up further debt. If you want to keep him in the education system you start him off as a lecturer at somewhere around £18,000 at age of 27 or 28, when he might well be married and have children. He will be comparing that with the starting salary of his bright counterparts who went straight into work at the end of their first degree course and they will have gone in on at least the amount that he is now being paid as a lecturer aged 27 or 28. I think that is a very daunting prospect for bright, young students who would like to stay in academia and provide the next wave of teachers and researchers, but for whom debt and relativity provide disincentives. That is just an example. It becomes more and more serious as we go along.

  299. I understand that. That is something that we picked up on very strongly at the University of Surrey, for example. Do you think that is already impacting on retention rates, because we are getting less motivated and less well paid people in the teaching profession?
  (Sir Michael Bett) That is a very great generalisation. It would be extremely rude about some very good people, indeed, if I tried to label everybody with that generalisation. It is, nevertheless, quite a good working tool to think that way. That is the tendency.
  (Professor Beath) I wonder if I can follow up on that. I think it would be a great misjustice to teachers in universities to say they were less concerned with issues of quality. We are extremely concerned about issues of quality. The problem is that, as Sir Michael indicated, the real resource pressures in the higher education system are such that more or less the same number of staff are having to teach ever more students. It is not surprising that in a situation like that, where staff student ratios are rising, undoubtedly, that students at what ever stage, undergraduate or postgraduate level, run into problems of whatever sort and they might need to talk to somebody and might need this problem to be identified and simply find that the care, support and guidance they need is just not available because there are so many of them trying to get at that. It is not surprising that at some levels and in some institutions retention rates progression through the universities has been a particular problem.
  (Mr Packham) I would agree with that. I think that some of the mechanisms that have been put into place, like the Quality Assurance Agency and the Teaching Quality Assessments, which have been referred to, are good developments. The problem is that over the last 12 years, or so, student numbers in higher education have doubled and the university of resource has declined by about 40 per cent, it is bottoming out now. This next year there is a slight increase, the first time for a long time. One of the consequences of that has been very much less favourable staff/student ratios. If you take my own university, we have first year classes in business and in pharmaceutical sciences ranging from 150 to 300 or so. I think in terms of the retention facts you are looking at it is easier for students to fall through the net. First of all, you have lecturers who are teaching much bigger classes and the lecturers themselves are under pressure to do research, to bring in research income, to do life-long learning, and so on, and a different make-up of students as well through widening participation. Another consequence is that the number of personal tutees a personal tutor has, has risen, 1 to 30 or 1 to 50 is not uncommon. It is easier for students to fall through the net. I agree, it would be simplistic to say that generally the quality of higher education is suffering. The pressure on academic staff has increased immensely over the last ten years, and particularly in recent times. Despite the welcome innovations of Teaching Quality Assessments, which people are very conscious of, there is no doubt that staff are under a very great deal of pressure and the widening participation, the implications of widening participation and the changed student financial arrangements are affecting retention.

Dr Harris

  300. The example you used was of a male student and then a postgraduate. Presumably, the situation might, certainly at a later point in their career, be even worse for female post graduates and lecturers. Can you expand on that?
  (Sir Michael Bett) If you looked at our report we made a great deal of the fact that we did not think there was necessarily equal pay and certainly not equal opportunity. That is one of the strongest parts of the report. It would be tedious of me to refer to all that here but we were convinced on that and all of the evidence we got seemed to support those views. I would say, yes, I did use a male example but it could be just as forbidding for a young lady to develop the sort of debt that I was talking about. I think you also have to take into account we do not have a culture of young people building up debt, however it may be that elsewhere in the world this has become a way of life. There is still a fairly puritanical streak here, for a lot of families the prospect of their son or daughter building up a debt of something like £10,000 or £12,000 by the age of 21 is a really daunting thing. I think that will continue to contribute to failure to retain over the coming years.

  301. Some of the language you are using is language used by Andrew Cubie in his report and in his evidence. Would you expect or be hopeful or be confident that the recruitment issues that are debt related in the United Kingdom might improve in Scotland or do you think the effect may not be clear for some years, if any?
  (Sir Michael Bett) I look to my left, I do not regard myself as an expert on Scotland but I do think the circumstances are different there.
  (Professor Beath) Of course, I do come from a Scottish University but I also wear a national hat. If you change a set of rules on funding you do not see immediate response to that. I think you should come back and ask me that question as to whether the experience in Scottish universities has been significantly affected by the "Cubie reform" in three years time. Then we will have built up evidence and we would be able to look at before Cubie and after Cubie and see whether there was any significant difference in the retention statistics.

  302. You say that resources and actions that have been taken so far are, perhaps, worthy attempts but in the scale of things sticking plaster. Could you say what sort of scale of resource need to go in? Can I ask you, in the same answer, this is something I have been struggling with, whether the priority, the funding has to come from somewhere, funding to solve the problems you identify, than from further expansion under the current plans?
  (Sir Michael Bett) It is difficult to do one without the other, effectively, if I may say so. In this we reckon the total cost—was six per cent at that time. I have not done any sums since to check that but it is in there in detail. We costed-out what we recommended and the total, I think I am right in saying, was six per cent.

  303. My last question on this, do you see any way of that pay gap being closed without a significant increase in the funding per student? Are there ways that universities might make efficiency savings in order to fund the difference or to simply pay men less to equalise it.
  (Sir Michael Bett) Over the years universities have been making considerable savings and contributing, I think rightly. I do not think any organisation is so perfect that it cannot be improved, I do think that we could carry on making improvements in efficiency. At the stage we have reached I do not think that the universities can generate out of savings the sort of funds that are necessary, in my view, to make the situation a lot better than it is today.
  (Professor Beath) I would like to comment on that point about efficiency savings. I think it is an interesting statistic to note that between 1990 and 2000 the real wage that you pay an academic has not increased at all. For lecturers it was 22,200 in 1990 and in 1999 it has risen to the magnificent figure of 22,700, and yet over that period the university has been asked to make efficiency or productivity gains of 1.5 per cent per annum. There must be few industries, I think, where if you deliver productivity gains at 1.5 per cent per annum you have not had a real wage increase. There is a real issue here of a sector which is under severe pressure.
  (Mr Packham) I think you would get a very strong reaction to the suggestion that universities through efficiency gains could make funding available to deal with the pay gap. John is being very gentle about this. If you look back at what I call cuts, because I am from the north, I think they are called efficiency gains, they have been implemented in the 1990s, up to 1997, I should say, they were about three to four per cent per annum. They have reduced over the last few years. We are still losing out year-on-year. I think it is true to say that in the early 1980s there was fat in the system, I think that has gone and you are down to the bone, and you would be cutting into the marrow. My own view is, and I think it is shared by a lot of people in universities, and I would favour this, there really ought to be a real terms increase in higher education funding from the public purse. The other way is to do it through top-up fees, a debate which you are aware of at the moment. My worry in relation to your brief on that is that I think it could increase attrition and reduce retention.

  304. Thank you for your indulgence, Chairman. If there is more money from the public purse, is there a danger that it will be spent on expansion or other things and not on the pay gap? Would the Government need to say, "For this real terms increase we want this to be used to tackle some of the problems", and they will probably choose. Universities also say, "We do not want money with strings attached". Is there a happy medium?
  (Mr Packham) I think there is a happy medium and increasingly through the Higher Education Funding Council there has been a very strong steer or prescription about how you spend funding. One of the things which has happened, which impacts on this, is over the next three years, something like £330 million going in for staff development, equal opportunities, the gender pay gap, and so on. This is useful, but it is not nearly as much as was recommended in the Bett Report. I think it is a reasonable start.

Charlotte Atkins

  305. I just have a quick supplementary on that line of questioning, is it the case that we spend more proportionately on student support out of the total budget than other countries?
  (Sir Michael Bett) I have no information on that.
  (Mr Packham) Statistically I think it is the case if we look at the OECD stats. One of the reasons for this historically and traditionally and one of the reasons why United Kingdom universities are good at retaining their students, better than France, Germany and the US, is because we have had selective entry, fixed term undergraduate programmes of three or four years. To do that when students are under the microscope you, and this is how this has developed, really need strong systems of student support. Yes, we do spend more than France, Germany or Italy.

  306. Do you think that should continue or do you think we should be focusing on paying for staff and/or other investment? It is a balance, which way do you think we should be going?
  (Sir Michael Bett) The quality of education is going down. However much you put into supporting the students you are not really helping the system or the nation. You have to do what is necessary to keep the quality of the educators up, and support the students. There is no point in being very good at supporting students through a second rate system.

  307. You would rather move towards spending more in terms of quality that is delivered rather than student support.
  (Sir Michael Bett) Student support tends to be remedial work.

  308. One assumes if you are employing staff you are giving them as much support as possible subsequently, and we will be getting on to the casualisation issue, what I was talking about, really, is the balance between putting it into pay salaries, research facilities or putting it towards maintenance grants, abolition of tuition fees, and so on. What do you think is the right balance towards what is happening in other countries?
  (Mr Packham) Many people in the United Kingdom higher education system would agree with this, that the first priority now, a real urgency, is restoring the pay gap and covering the pay gap. If you do that and you get committed staff, particularly at the young end, where at the moment we are finding it very difficult to bring good, committed young academics into the higher education, in some subjects more than others, if you can do that through giving them a decent level of pay you will help on the student support side, because it is less likely that students will fall through the net and the quality of academic support will be better. I think many people will agree that the top priority is the pay issue.
  (Sir Michael Bett) I would like to add that in 2005, John will correct me if I am wrong, we are due for quite an exodus in higher education and unless we have it right, bringing the youngsters through to teach, we are going to have the crisis that I do not think is with us yet. I think we are in sliding down the hill mode rather than crisis. There is a crisis on the horizon and unless we get it right and bring young teachers and researchers through now, before 2005—I need not go on.
  (Professor Beath) Can I answer Charlotte Atkins' question and then follow on in response to Sir Michael's response. The higher education process and how you get it right, it is quite a subtle problem. You have to think of it in this way, a flow of students coming in and an output of skilled people out of that process at the end. The issues we are talking about are twofold. People in the education process, the inputs, could drop out because of student debts. To these inputs, the ones that you do retain, you are applying highly skilled, technical input and training them to be good students. What we want at the end is better quality. We can improve that and enhance that, either by improving these technological inputs, getting the staff in by reducing the dropout rates or by some combination of them both. Your question is, what is the right balance? I think that is something that we need to think very hard about. I do not think there is a simple answer to that. However, there is a problem that Sir Michael addressed, that is what I call the swinging 60s time bomb, that is a large group of people who are currently senior academics and in 2005 they will simply disappear from the system. There are a significant number of subject areas where the recruitment problems into higher education and university teaching are extraordinarily difficult. My subject area has been affected by that. I can go into some details if you wish me to. That is a real problem.

Mr Marsden

  309. My first question, perhaps David Packham would like to lead on it and then others can come in as is, clearly in the real world, we have begun to the address the real world, there are very hard choices and very hard priorities to be made. I think you would have been particularly overjoyed, Sir Michael, if one hundred per cent of your report was to be implemented in terms of the funding recommendations. Let us assume that we build on the initiatives that the Government have already taken and that somewhere down the line more money does become available. As I say, I would like to ask the question, initially to David Packham, what are the key areas where we need to assure ourselves of staff recruitment and the issue of staff retention? I mean here, both in terms of the actual academic disciplines and also as a supplementary, are there particular types of higher education institutions where we need to be acutely conscious of the need for extra funding which will assist the process of staff recruitment and retention, bearing in mind that has, as we already discussed, a direct relevance on student retention, given the staff student ratio?
  (Mr Packham) In terms of the areas concerned the particular disciplines where there is difficulty in attracting staff are in areas like finance, accounting, economics, as has been mentioned already, but some of the professional areas as well, law, pharmaceutical sciences and oprometry. Frankly, it is because a student will graduate from pharmacy or vision sciences, which we have at Aston, and they can go out and get a starting salary well into the 20,000s whereas they may start off as a lecturer on 18,000. Those are some of the areas of particular recruitment problems. In terms of the time bomb, I will just refer to that. We have difficulties as well in recruiting staff into engineering, that is a subject where the staff are obviously ageing, they are all ageing together. We have had some subjects which have not had renewal for a long time, that is a worry for the manufacturing industries. The second part of your question in particular institutions.

  310. I am not necessarily asking you to specify individual types of institutions.
  (Mr Packham) Perhaps my own university, it is an ex-college of advanced technology, it came in in the 1960s but we are classified as a pre 1992 university. If I was taking the statesman-like view of looking at higher education I think probably in some of the new universities, where they are having particular difficulties, they started off with less favourable staff/student ratios, they do not have the research income, by and large, because whilst there is some very good research done in some of the pre 1992 universities they tend to be towards the teaching end of things and staff/student ratios are higher. They have also had to expand to try and keep their funding levels to a reasonable level and so they are suffering more from staff/student ratios, and so on. They have also been good at widening participation. In widening participation it is often, but not exclusively the case, that students may come in less well qualified and, therefore, need more support.

  311. Some of the new universities have been too good for their own good in terms of funding.
  (Mr Packham) I am not being critical at all. I think that is a reasonable assumption. When you widen participation, we have done this at my university, we made a conscious decision, and we are lucky to be able to do this because of the catchment area, and our subjects, we have widened participation, but we have maintained standards. We have increased our take-up from the Birmingham/West Midlands area, brought in far more students from the ethnic minorities, who are keen on doing subjects like pharmacy and optometry. In many of the new universities there is a lot of intake and widening participation into arts based areas, a high staff/student ratio and difficulties in supporting the students. It is probably some of those universities that would really welcome the injection of additional funding.

  312. In a previous session with the Committee Howard Newby specifically quoted economics as an example where it is difficult to recruit. Perhaps you can say something about that, both in terms of the recruitment of students and keeping them into post-graduation and also keeping them into teaching. I imagine the charms of, as a friend of mine was, being picked up by the World Bank as a star economist in his late twenties as opposed to going on and teaching economics must be a particularly sharp example.
  (Professor Beath) That is right. I should say, there are other subject areas that are almost as badly affected as economics. I do not want the idea to be put out that we are unique, we certainly have a significant problem. The extent of the problem is the following, there had been a growth in the number of MSc programmes in economics and there is quite a healthy demand from students to enter such programmes. If you are going to turn these people into university lecturers you have to get them to do a PhD component. Then you discover that at that critical point when they make the decision, from finishing their MSc to "should I go on to a PhD" almost none say, "Yes, I will go on to do a PhD". We know that in the last three years, for example, at the LSE of the United Kingdom students who went through the MSE only one of these students has chosen to do a PhD.

  313. I know the PhD system in the United Kingdom varies from the system in the US, are we too rigorous in (a) the amount of time we expect students to spend on a PhD and, (b) the amount of research, very often lightly supervised, that we expect them to do and the time limits in which we expect them to operate?
  (Professor Beath) I would answer that is not the case, and simply because the ESRC have made sure it is not the case. The ESRC have very firm rules about the nature of the PhD, the need for good progression rates, and so on.

  314. You do not think people are doing PhDs until the cows come home and are not really getting the staff or the financial support to do it.
  (Professor Beath) There are financial penalties if students do not complete their PhD within three years, severe financial penalties. A university can be blacklisted if it does not have a sufficiently good completion rate for PhDs. There are controls in place to stop that. The problem is, I think, as your World Bank friend will confirm, again if you compare the medium salary of academics in economics and what economists can earn outside, back in 1990 it was roughly something like the university salary would be, 22,000, let us say for a senior lecturer at that time, in industry it was about 30,000, now a senior lecturer has gone up to 32,000/33,000 but that same person outside of university is earning 60,000 plus. Students see that, the wage differential gap, and they just do not want to do it.

  315. Can I take you on, we have had a lot of evidence, not just about the financial situation, which we are talking about today, but also about what academics, particularly younger academics, feel about the other pressures on them as part of a package. You are particularly, if I say so, well qualified to comment on this, because of your involvement in the research assessment exercise and also with bench marking. You are almost the ideal person to pronounce subjectively on this matter. One of the things we have been concerned about is the extent to which external episodes, like the research assessment exercise, and to a lesser extent QAA, impacted so strongly on the time that academics can devote to other things, like student support, that (a) demoralise the academics, and (b) reduce the elements of student support and what the balance is between teaching and research. Do we privilege research too much in terms of an academic's career pattern? I know that is a very big agenda, would you like to comment on it?
  (Professor Beath) Can I start with the last thing? It is certainly true that in the academic profession if you were you giving a young academic advice you would say, focus your energies on research because the way the system works it is those who are the research stars who will most rapidly rise. Certainly the pressures on young academics to do research and publish that research in the very best journals are significant. There is only so much time. When an academic sees the balance and says, "Yes, I am going to devote more of my time and energies and concentrate on research, and of course I will do my lecturing. Given the time I have I will do it to the best of my ability", it is inevitable.

  316. That is the way the focus works, it is research first.
  (Professor Beath) Increasingly you will find that. The post 1992 universities are rapidly adopting a research culture. The pressures are coming in as well. I do not think this is something that you need to do in pre 1992 universities. There is some tension.

  317. That brings me on to my final question, which is the things that the Government are doing to try and address some of these issues in terms of recruitment and retention and, indeed, modernisation of the management process. We know that the secretary of state has allocated these sums of money, 50 million for the coming year, 110 million for the year after, 170 million for 2003-2004. That money has obviously been given for that process. Should HEFCE be more prescriptive about how they actually target some of that money, given the sort of things we have been taking about? Should they be saying, so much of it will be spent on recruitment packages for teachers in some of the key disciplines that you are talking about or do you think that the strategic direction programme from the top, as it were, from DfEE is tight enough already?
  (Sir Michael Bett) We recommended certain ways of spending money. We recommended certain topics, like the management of people, which we identified as being below par, generally speaking, and that universities should concentrate upon. I would hate to see anything that was so prescriptive that it drove every university, regardless of its problems, down the same line. I really think that sort of prescription is not on. I do think, as I say, there are ways in which we think extra money should be spent in the report. I do think that there are aspects which HEFCE could concentrate their minds on by guidance and making more money available the right way.

  318. Can I be provocative for a moment and say, I am not saying necessarily because it is my view, but it certainly a view that is expressed, not least amongst junior academics from time to time, can we trust the Vice-Chancellors at some of our universities if HEFCE says, "Here you are, you have these problems in these areas with staff retention, etc. Here you are, here is £20 million make sure you spend it in this area". Can we trust them to spend it in that area and not on some prestige project of a building, or whatever?
  (Sir Michael Bett) I would say, yes I think we can trust them. That is a blanket yes.

  319. What are the mechanisms for being able to verify that trust?
  (Sir Michael Bett) You have to account for what you spend the money on and people will see what you are spending the money on. HEFCE would come back very strongly, indeed, on any university which is not spending the money in the general area to which the money is allocated.
  (Professor Beath) Every university has to put forward strategic plans. I would have thought that there is an obvious device for doing this, that is that HEFCE would want to see a strategic plan which identifies key problem areas, how the Vice Chancellor concerned is going to tackle them and then could use that to judge the quality of the strategic plan, and hence the funding it would give to the institution.

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