Examination of witnesses (Questions 320
WEDNESDAY 24 JANUARY 2001
BETT, CBE, MR
and PROFESSOR JOHN
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 moneyan indicative amount has been given for each
universityby 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.
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.
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 supportten
years ago it was six members of staff, now it is more like ten
members of staffmore 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.
321a. Is that because whereas traditionally
there has been a career path for academic staffwe may have
doubts about how it operates, you said there is a market through
the researchthat 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
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
(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
324. Is that a euphemism for slow?
(Mr Packham) It has been quite slow, yes.
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 leveland that is also true in my own universitythe
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 readyand quite rightly soto 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 nowI am not
talking about a huge wave of letterspointing out these
sorts of aspects to us now than we did, say, even three years
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
329. So is that one advantageous result of tuition
(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.
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
(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 whyand you will know thisthe 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
(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
(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.
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 Leagueit 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