Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 320 - 341)



  320. You think that the auditing mechanisms that we currently have in place are robust enough?
  (Professor Beath) They ought to be robust enough, whether they are is another matter.
  (Sir Michael Bett) I think they are.
  (Mr Packham) I address your question. A lot of people would be very much against further prescription. If you take the position now as opposed to ten or 15 years ago, the amount of steer and the amount of guidance which is given to us by HEFCE is very considerable indeed. The safeguard is the auditing process. We are subject to five different levels of audit, that is excluding quality audits on the teaching side and the research assessment exercise. We have to submit widening participation strategies, quality strategies, estate strategies, and so on. I do not think that the point that you made at the end is a danger at all. If you take the particular initiative that you refer to, to some extent we are suffering from indigestion with initiatives, there are so many. We are currently undergoing a consultation exercise for staff development funding, the responses have to be in next week. We then have to put in quite a detailed bid for our proportion of the money—an indicative amount has been given for each university—by June. This will then be audited and monitored very carefully over the following year. I do not think there is a danger in the point you made.

Helen Jones

  321. I want to turn to the another area of recruitment, if I may, we have talked a lot about the recruitment of lecturing staff. I would like to talk about recruiting support staff, which often gets neglected, many of whom now contribute strongly to the teaching and learning process, even if they do not do it directly they do it indirectly. If you are working in an environment that is not clean that is demoralising for everyone else. Can you give us some of the evidence of the problems that you found in this area and how it effected teaching and learning? This is an area that in the past we have not considered in enough detail.
  (Sir Michael Bett) Certainly you will find in the report indications of the way in which support staff are paid and the amounts they are paid. You will find that we made recommendations for quite considerable up-lift there because, undoubtedly, the quality of the managing of the resources of a university is a great contributor to how well that university is going to function academically. Also, if I may say so, the management of all sorts of resources and facilities from the students sports facilities, the estates, the way in which things are kept clean, or not, is a factor in the retention of students. Give them a milieu in which they feel comfortable and happy and can respond I think you will find you will retain more. I think the support staff, who have borne quite a bit of the brunt of the efficiency savings that my colleague David mentioned, do need to be thought of quite as seriously as the academic staff. The thing about a university in that context is that it is a team of staff, of all types of staff. The technical support staff are extremely important to the quality of the academic achievements and the academic experience of the students.
  (Mr Packham) In some areas computer staff, computer officers, there are real difficulties in recruiting staff on the salary levels that we can offer. Increasingly with concentration on computer-assisted learning that is a problem. We are seeing increasing turnover rates in secretarial and clerical staff and in some areas of the technical staff. Academic related staff are paid on scales related to the academic scales. It is the same sort of problems you are finding at the younger end with young academic staff, perhaps not quite so pronounced. In general terms the same sort of difficulties apply to the academic related staff as they do to young lecturers and people starting off.
  (Professor Beath) This is the famous Maureen problem at the University of Poppleton[1]. Maureen is the person who holds that department together, indeed supports students and staff. Actually this is a problem, there are very few people like this around now in universities because it is proving harder and harder to retain them. The turnover problem is really serious. There is a turnover problem that has affected administration and technical staff. This has meant that in addition each administrative support officer is having to support—ten years ago it was six members of staff, now it is more like ten members of staff—more staff, so the pressure on them has increased and not surprising their jobs have to suffer. There is another issue, casualisation is important. Some time ago you used to be able to hire part-time lecturers, you could get people in who had lecturing qualifications, lecturing experience on a part-time basis. You could afford to hire these people and that had an impact. If you look at major universities there are almost none of those part-time lecturers, whereas the teaching will be done by graduate teachers and assistants or postgraduates who have to try and teach in addition to doing their research. Across a whole range of support areas, which is quite broad now, the impact has been negative on quality.

Helen Jones

  321a. Is that because whereas traditionally there has been a career path for academic staff—we may have doubts about how it operates, you said there is a market through the research—that universities have not given enough attention to developing the careers of their support staff, particularly the technical staff and the computer staff you have. If so, do you have any idea on how that could be improved? There is the money factor and job satisfaction.
  (Mr Packham) I think it is getting a lot better. There are now as many development initiatives for support staff, far more now than there were five years ago. In the Association of University of Administrators, for example, for academic related staff there is now a certificate of professional development, that sort of thing. Universities, generally, certainly English universities, I am not sure about Scotland, are making far more opportunities available for training courses and programmes for their support staff than they used to do. The situation has improved a lot. It is needed because there has been less support staff to support increasing numbers. We have to make sure they are up to the job and they are using the skills and they have the skills to meet the changing requirements of their job, particularly in relation, for example, to student record systems are computerised and other areas of computer support which were not there a few years ago.

  322. I know you recommend in your report benchmarking and evaluation for academic staff and for non-academic staff, are you satisfied that enough progress is being made towards that goal?
  (Sir Michael Bett) I am really very ignorant of any progress that has been made at all. I am not saying that there has not been any progress but I have not been involved at all. As soon as the report was finished the industry, as it were, took the report off to itself. There has not been much to show yet of whatever deliberations are going on behind the scenes.

  323. Have Professor Beath or David Packham seen any movement on the ground?
  (Professor Beath) I could not comment on that at all.
  (Mr Packham) There has been very measured progress really.

  324. Is that a euphemism for slow?
  (Mr Packham) It has been quite slow, yes.

Charlotte Atkins

  325. One of the big issues for students in terms of retention is their experience in the first year, clearly that determines how happy they are going to be, by and large, for the whole of their period? To what extent in their first year in higher education is their experience of being taught by teaching assistants and postgraduate students? How much is that the normal experience of students nowadays? If that is the experience, is that because that is the tradition in many institutions or is that because of the recruitment problems you are speaking of?
  (Professor Beath) I can give you a fairly firm answer to that because I have just done two quality assurance visits to two universities, and major ones at that. In both of these universities it was true that at the first year level a very large part of the tutorial small group teaching was done by graduate teaching assistants, but the departments concerned recognised that these were young, relatively inexperienced teachers, and in both cases there was considerable mentoring and prior training that the Department did. Certainly the students themselves did not raise any concerns about the quality of the tutorial teaching. The good thing that came out of these visits was that at the first year level—and that is also true in my own university—the heavyweights give the lectures. The students still get the Professor of Economics in their first year. After all, if you are a Professor of Economics you had better profess it, and where better to start professing it than to those who come in in the first year? That still happens as far as I can tell from these two universities I have done detailed visits to, and I know it does in my own particular case in Scotland. While it is true that in graduate teaching GTAs are an increasing feature, as long as the universities can assure and ensure (and this is where the quality issue is very important) that there is proper mentoring and training of these people, the student experience does not seem to suffer.

  326. Would Sir Michael and David Packham like to add anything?
  (Sir Michael Bett) I would defer to David on this.
  (Mr Packham) I think John is right. Speaking for my own university, there is an increasing tendency to rely upon graduate teaching assistants. Also, in my own institution they do go to considerable lengths to make sure that that does not adversely affect the quality of the teaching. Indeed, it is in our best interests to do so, not merely because there is the QAA there to look at it from time to time, but also, if you do not do that you are going to have problems in the second and third years for those students who are struggling and who may then be going to the lecturing staff or the professor. Certainly one of the implications of students paying tuition fees, the £1,000 fees, is that they have become as much customers as they have students and they are very ready—and quite rightly so—to point out to us when we are not delivering, whether it is standard of residence or sports facilities or the quality of teaching.

  327. And is it the quality of the teaching which is foremost in their minds? Bearing in mind they are paying for the tuition they want to get value for money. Are they saying, "Hold on a second. I am being tutored by someone who is barely two years out of my position"?
  (Mr Packham) Yes, I think the quality of teaching is high on their agenda. Speaking for my institution, certainly the Vice-Chancellor and I get more letters now—I am not talking about a huge wave of letters—pointing out these sorts of aspects to us now than we did, say, even three years ago.

  328. Are you pleased that students are being more critical consumers of your product?
  (Mr Packham) Yes. They ought to hold us to what we are saying we will deliver in our prospectuses, in our schools liaison and so on. We ought to be held to it. Certainly the university wants to know where there any failings so that we can put things right.

  329. So is that one advantageous result of tuition fees?
  (Mr Packham) I think it is.


  330. We are running out of time. Does John want to come in on that?
  (Professor Beath) I want to say that in fact the two year age gap, or whatever it is, is an advantage in many respects in the small group situation. They want to ask questions about the fact that they did not understand this, they did not understand that, and it is a lot easier to talk to someone who looks a bit like you, who does not have too many wrinkles. I think that is more rewarding, and provided they are well mentored it is rather a good situation.

Dr Harris

  331. In answers to earlier questions you pointed out the scale of resources needed to implement this particular issue and that universities do feel strongly about it. Charlotte made inter alia the reasonable point that it is hard to prioritise being more generous to students over the exigencies of tackling the problems of staff, and therefore David said that if more resources were not going to come from government then universities were going increasingly to look towards pushing the right to levy top-up fees. Do you think that is an inevitable route that we are heading down unless more resources come in to tackle this?
  (Mr Packham) Yes, I do. Many universities would be very reluctant to introduce top-up fees for undergraduates. There are already separate fees for postgraduates. I think the level of funding is such that it is not going to hamper us on issues you have been talking about: quality of teaching and in other areas. There are two sources realistically you can look to. You can look to the public purse through the HEFCE and through recurrent grants and so on, or you can look to the customer, the student. That is why—and you will know this—the CVCP and Universities UK are now doing a lot of work on the different funding options. It is certainly our case, and I think I speak for many of us, that we do not want to introduce top-up fees at undergraduate level. However, to avoid some of the real problems, the slippery slope that we have just talked about, then we would rather introduce top-up fees than brook reductions in standards. If it does not come from the government then I think that is what will happen.
  (Sir Michael Bett) I agree entirely that top-up fees will come if there is not a governmental response to the need for more money.
  (Professor Beath) There are two other sources of resources. One is the opportunity for commercialised research done at universities. That has proved quite successful in America where changes in federal law have enabled universities to earn royalties from scientific findings. The other is that there are some institutions (unfortunately rather few) who may be able to tap into their own alumni. These are relatively few, the elite.
  (Sir Michael Bett) And if you do not do research it is not a source.

  332. We are coming to the end of our time but can I take the privilege of the Chairman's position and ask you a couple of last questions and bring you right back to retention? In a sense I think we have got the message very loud and clear from the comments you have made about the need to address the problem of rewarding staff properly and also tackling the whole question of graduates coming into teaching, but can I press you once more on the implications for retention? Is there anything that the government or HEFCE should be doing in the short to medium term to address the problem of drop-out students? If you were able to say anything to HEFCE or to the Secretary of State, what is the message that you would give in terms of changes? It is not just, "Give more money" as a unit of resource, is it?
  (Sir Michael Bett) It is not just that, because I think there could be better communications. There is some good news in the sense that government estimates that 50 per cent of undergraduates will not need to pay tuition fees from 2001-02. I think that students need to know that there are access and hardship funds available. I do think that if those hardship funds are increased to a reasonable operating size they can ameliorate the situation quite considerably for undergraduates who are really strapped. I think there are things that can be done but they are what I would call sticking plaster remedies. I do not want that to sound entirely pejorative. I am just saying that such things can be done but they are going to be at the fringe of the problem rather than tackling it head on.
  (Mr Packham) I agree. Better information for prospective students, certainly in terms of widening participation, is needed. We are getting quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that some students coming from a non-traditional background are being put off because they think they have got to pay £1,000 a year, whereas in fact most of them from poorer backgrounds, because of their parents' level of income, will not have to pay anything at all. I would say to HEFCE, "Yes, please encourage more what you have already started in terms of summer schools". There is a very good DfEE pilot scheme in mentoring at the moment, and we are taking part in this, which is to try and attract into universities pupils that have never considered coming into HE, but to give them more information about what they can expect, what the conditions are, and so on. If they are better prepared they are more likely to stick with the programme because they will have made a better informed choice. That does not involve very much money but I think it is something that could be done quickly.
  (Professor Beath) I do not think it is an issue of information; I think it is an issue of dissemination of information. After all, we are putting in all these resources, and in that process we will discover best practice: which universities have low drop-out rates and why do they have low drop-out rates? Have they mechanisms in place? There is nothing in the QAA mechanism to allow that information to be shared from one university to another. If you really need a short term solution, disseminate best practice. That is not a long term solution but sometimes as a resource efficient or low-cost solution that might be a quick fix and that might help.

  333. What is the resource expensive answer?
  (Professor Beath) I think the expensive one is to put in place proper student support, financial student support, and the salary point.

  334. Do you want to go back to the pre-1997 situation for students?
  (Professor Beath) You mean of the student maintenance allowance?

  335. Yes.
  (Professor Beath) Yes. I actually believe that higher education is a public investment and that there are large public benefits that flow from higher education. These are much greater than the private benefits. If people are having to borrow they look only at the private benefits not the public benefits. They do too little of it, they drop out too quickly. It really is a serious public goods problem and it is very difficult to see how the market can be relied on to get that right.

Charlotte Atkins

  336. But your colleague said that their priority between financial student support and better pay for university staff was university pay.
  (Sir Michael Bett) I do not think I put it as starkly as that. I said you can do these things for the students but unless you have got the education side right it is not really a very profitable exercise, so you have got to do both. I think I said that, which sounds the most expensive way forward that you can think of, but you do have to make sure you have got the right people teaching and the right people in higher education. In a few years' time there will be too few of the right people in higher education unless a remedy is found.


  337. Have not Charlotte and I drawn out the fact that there is a great division here? We are a Committee that I hope would give advice to the Secretary of State. I think John wants to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand he wants better pay for teachers but he wants to go back to the very expensive system of student maintenance.
  (Professor Beath) That is not what I said. I thought you had asked me a very precise question which had to do with the drop-out rate of students. What I said much earlier in my answer was that this is a rather subtle process of inputs and outputs. I just think you have to address this issue on both fronts and both of these things need resources put into them. I cannot give you any guidance on the right balance.

  338. But the evidence that the Committee had in a previous session pointed out that at one stage we were spending as much as any other advanced country in Europe per capita, round about, but that 45 per cent of our spending was going on student support. There were strong arguments put by people like yourselves that that could not continue. In a sense the government has grappled with that by changing the whole basis of student support. What I asked you very directly was: would you want to go back to the old system where we spent that sort of percentage of the higher education budget on student support?
  (Professor Beath) I guess the point I was trying to make was that we have probably moved dangerously in the direction of putting a lot of the burden of investment in the process of education and training on the student through the debt problem, and I think that needs to be mitigated somewhat. As to whether it is an issue of going back to where we were, I agree, that is perhaps going too far.

  339. You have taught in the United States and they have a very different culture there but it is also one which some would argue enables better pay to be paid for both university teachers and their support staff.
  (Professor Beath) They have a very mixed system. A lot of the arguments that have been adduced as to the model that you might use for higher education in the USA apply to Harvard. If we really had a system made up of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, The Ivy League—it is not the same at Michigan State.

  340. We have just come back from a cross-section of American universities.
  (Professor Beath) Yes. I think some of the solutions that are being proposed are overly simplistic.
  (Sir Michael Bett) I would just add that I was at Cambridge the other day talking to some people and, knowing that I was coming here, I raised the student retention problem and they did not recognise it. They did not recognise it as a problem. That does not mean to say that there is no fall out. I am going back to the Harvard/Princeton thing. You have got the situation in this country where drop-out is very definitely different between different types of universities. Also, I think it is a significant figure, the 1998 figure, for the retention rate in the States which was 63 per cent whereas in this country it was 83 per cent. If you bear in mind the cost of student drop-out that I saw, was it 200 million that somebody said to you the other day? As John says, this is a subtle problem rather than a simplistic one. I think we might well be benefiting more in our society by putting a bit more behind students than they do in the States. Certainly the retention rate comparison would be arguable there.

  341. David, one last word?
  (Mr Packham) I think the suggestion that you had, that the only solution to this is to go back to maintenance grants, is not justified. The last estimate I saw was that it was going to cost something like three to four billion to do that, and I do not think that is justified. I think a lot of people in the HE system would agree with me that that would not be the best way to deploy that sort of resource. It is still a very good deal for students coming in, even though they have £10,000-£12,000 of debt at the end of their undergraduate programme, because all the research that I have seen and you will have seen shows that they go on to get a better lifetime expectancy of earnings and so on. It is very interesting as well that despite the introduction of the £1,000 tuition fees, students' applications, although they have levelled off, have not dropped. There were predictions of dire reductions. There has been some drop in mature students, although that seems to be levelling out. This is a personal view but I think it is supported: I do not think there is a need to go back to student maintenance grants. I think, looking specifically at that, a limited increase in the amount of funding that goes to access funds and so on would help a great deal, but I stick by what I said before, that the first priority, if there were some funding from the public purse, would be to pay staff a decent salary and I think that would impact upon what you have been talking about. It would prevent more students from dropping out.

  Chairman: We are at the end of our time, unless anyone has anything else. Thank you very much. It has been a must illuminating session. Thank you, Michael, David, John, for your time and your very thorough answers.

1   From Laurie Taylor's humerous column in The Times Higher Education Supplement.  Back

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