Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the London School of Economics and Political Science (HE23)

  1.  We warmly welcome the opportunity to give evidence to the Sub-Committee`s enquiry into the quality of student teaching and learning. All aspects of the quality of the experience of our students are a matter of continuous concern to an institution of international standing such as LSE which draws its students and staff from across the world. The School has long played a central role in promoting globally the distinctive ethos and values of the UK higher education system to the benefit of the business and diplomatic interests of the UK. Oue reputation and indeed our survival depend on our students receiving a teaching and learning experience of the highest quality.

  2.  Over the past few years the LSE has worked very hard to sustain its reputation as perhaps the leading social science institution in the world. The School has sought to respond very actively and purposefully to changing external conditions, including the relative decline in support from government per head of student population. Among other activities and innovations the School has sought to develop additional sources of revenue to the greatest degree possible, including revenue from overseas student fees, fundraising activities and revenue-generating business opportunities. By means of proactive policies it has sought to recruit the very best academic staff from across the world and retain those already working within the School. For reasons detailed below, this endeavour, which is of course absolutely crucial to the world-wide standing of the School, is becoming progressively harder to accomplish succesfully. The School has revised its decision-making procedures in order to be able to respond much more effectively to changing trends in our education. It is very actively seeking to improve the services offered to students, and the general "student experience" of the LSE, in full consciousness of the very high standards now set by the top US universities with whom the LSE is in direct competition. At the same time the School is giving detailed attention to issues such as the need to provide access for students from poorer backgrounds both to get into the LSE and to do well once they are there.

  In the emerging knowledge economy higher education becomes more and more central to the economic success of the country as a whole. Together with other top British institutions of higher education the School operates in an increasingly competitive global environment. The prime competition for staff, students and resource capabilities comes from the leading US universities, almost all of which have vastly greater financial assets at their disposal than the LSE does.

  3.  The judgement is that under-funding and under-investment have placed the international quality of the UK higher education system on a knife-edge. All groups of students have increased expectations. Quite legitimately, they demand more for the fees they pay, particularly from universities such as LSE competing in an international market. We have done a great deal ourselves to generate the additional income needed to keep pace with their expectations. But the focus of public funding arrangements upon educating growing numbers of students more cheaply does not make it any easier for universities of international standing to meet their students' higher aspirations. It is telling that there are growing numbers of UK applicants for first degrees places looking to Ivy League colleges to provide the quality of higher education experience they consider they deserve. There is a very real danger that continued under-funding will thwart the Prime Minister's drive to attract more overseas students to the UK launched at the School in June 1999 and the consequent international benefits he identified for the country.

  4.  A further quality-related factor which threatens to stifle international student recruitment is the limits placed on Home/EU funded numbers, particular the rigidity of the Maximum Aggregate Student Number applied to undergraduates. Current restrictions on funded numbers are making it difficult for us to recruit a critical mass of UK undergraduate students in some areas. This in turn threatens to affect international student recruitment because overseas students, undergraduate and postgraduate, view interaction with UK students as a vitally important aspect of the quality of their student experience. The Sub-committee is therefore asked to note that we will need to secure growth in funded numbers to ensure that we can continue to offer international students what they want, so further expanding the influence of UK-educated overseas alumni.

  A distinct but related concern is that the tight cap on home undergraduate numbers at the LSE systematically restricts access for home students to one of the best UK universities, which is entirely at variance with the aspiration to broaden participation.

  5.  The Select Committee should also be aware that "quality" is inextricably linked to the calibre of staff recruited by institutions. Recruitment of staff in an international market is becoming increasingly difficult because of the low level of academic pay in the UK. A letter recently written to The Times by the Governors of the School summarises the problems that the school is presently facing; this letter is attached.[1] The added problems of living and working in London mean that the School has retention as well as recruitment problems. The result of low pay levels and rigidities in the national academic salary structure is a general depressor of the high points of university teaching, and as the difference between the UK and elsewhere grows more pronounced we shall see an acceleration of the loss of trained staff. The salaries that can be earned by those in the professions give the School real cause for concern about the difficulty of enticing the brightest young people into academic life to establish the next generation of teachers and researchers. Inability to attract staff of the highest calibre will have a particularly harmful effect on institutions with leading research and international roles, with consequent prejudicial effects on the quality of the teaching and learning experience and all that that implies for the UK's national and international interests.

  A few comparisons will illustrate the difficulty. A newly qualified solicitor or accountant can earn £35,000 or more in London before they reach the age of 30; their earnings after ten years' experience can easily be above £50,000. The salary range for Grade 7 Civil Servants is £28,000-£45,000. Personal Assistants in commercial companies can earn between £20,000 and £30,000. The salary range of most LSE teachers is from £19,000-£32,000 and that of a Senior Lecturer is £33,000 to £37,000. It is not difficult to understand why there is a genuine concern that young people are reluctant to enter academic life. Members of other professions can earn more after five years than an academic of 20 years' standing. A salary of £32,000 only secures a maximum mortgage borrowing of around £80,000, woefully inadequate with London house prices. The salaries mentioned are moreover inclusive of London Weighting. This has remained unchanged for many years and is now a wholly unrealistic reflection of the higher costs of living in the capital.

  In order to retain our ability to recruit and retain high quality staff, urgent consideration must therefore be given to academic pay. The Bett report has highlighted recruitment and retention difficulties in institutions and recommended that levels of pay of certain groups of staff be increased. I would therefore strongly urge the Sub-committee to consider these issues in its review of the quality of the teaching and learning experience.


6.1  Defining Quality in Teaching and Learning

  Quality in higher education is defined by reference to four main factors: the perceptions of students (outlined above), national objectives for the higher education sector, the experience of those who will employ graduates, and the opinions of other universities (particularly those outside the UK) who not only admit graduates to further study but also consitute an international peer reference group. It should be noted that employers may not be consistent in their views, either between themselves or as individuals even across relatively short periods of time, and they may tend to attribute failings to higher education which are properly those of the school system. Emphasis on employer views will therefore tend to lead to difficulties of interpretation even where it does not lead to a mechanistic interpretation of the role of the university as merely a preparatory organisation for particular jobs.

6.2  Measuring and Assuring Teaching Quality

    (a)  Measuring teaching quality is only one part of the greater task of measuring what contributes to the student's learning, which must also include learning resources and support, and we assume that the wider definition is applicable here. The School welcomes the principles of establishing measures of teaching output comparable in rigour to those applied to research output, and of teaching quality informing a generally enhanced level of funding, with proportionately greater support for the best teaching and appropriate recognition of diversity of practice. It has to be acknowledged that almost all means of measuring output in education are fraught with danger. They may be criticised for being too subjective; when objective criteria are provided they will tend to have undesirable effects. The structure adopted by QAA will, we believe, have exactly these effects.

    (b)  The establishment of subject benchmarks across such a widely diverse group of institutions must necessarily include a strong measure of compromise between weaker and stronger bodies because whatever hurdles are set must be capable of being passed by all; the resulting compromise will be no challenge to the stronger universities, and will represent a static and insufficient benchmark for quality judgements and for funding. In any case to see programmes solely through a subject lens is mistaken: there are very few programmes that belong solely to a single subject.

    (c)  The collection and maintenance of detailed information on every course in the UK will represent a most expensive and unnecessary activity, the costs of which must come from a budget voted for educational purposes.

    (d)  The new systems of audit and subject review, which now appear to have been defined, appear to us to be far from sensitive to the differing achievements of the various universities, and to constitute a set of standard practices that will be expensive to administer and comply with.

    (e)  There is too great an emphasis on summative judgement of institutional performance, which leads to defensive reactions, and too little on desirable development.

6.3.  Variations in Teaching Quality between Different Disciplines and Institutions

  The quality of education will always differ between institutions, even in the same subject: given that the UK needs to demonstrate international excellence and that not all institutions will be able to achieve it, it is inevitable that this will be so. For the same reason they will differ between different subjects even at the same institution (though this will be less likely in a specialist institution like this school, which is small and restricted to the social sciences). It would be nonsensical to attempt to establish uniform standards, and difficult even to determine thresholds without raising the difficult (and, we believe, insoluble) questions in 6.2 above.

6.4  Effect of Wider Participation on Teaching Quality

  Although the School has increased its intakes, the quality of its students has been rising, presumably through market differentiation. We do not therefore have the experience of some other universities where they have had difficulty in securing an intake prepared for study at this level. We may observe, however, from published figures, that those institutions with praiseworthy low dropout rates are generally those with the lowest proportions of state school entrants. That there appears to be such a relationship is highly regrettable but it should not be concealed. There is nothing to be gained by expanding intakes if there is insufficient resource to keep the students in the system once they have registered. In these circumstances we do not believe that the Government can argue that the unit of resource is sufficient; and we believe that initiatives such as pressure to take more state school students (with which we agree) should not be taken without thought for the consequences.

6.5  Use of student teachers

  We mainly use graduate research students as occasional teachers in undergraduate classes and seminars. This is largely because their time is more negotiable than that of taught students who have tight schedules. Student teachers do not give lectures. We monitor them closely and find not only that they perform well but that this work is an excellent training for future employment. We would not employ undergraduates to teach.

6.6  Institute for Learning and Teaching

  The School supports the ILTHE and looks forward to working with it.

6.7  Link between Teaching and Research

  The School doubts whether a programme of study ought to have degree status unless it is taught by staff who are at or near the leading edge of their subjects. To use the words degree or university as widely as they might be used in future—for an associate degree, for example—puts at risk the whole reputation of UK higher education. The preponderance of those teaching undergraduates ought to be active researchers, though one would not expect them all to be of international or even national reputation; but by no means do we rule out the use of experienced and able teachers, of whom there are many, whose research contributions are modest or are in the past. The results of subject reviews under HEFCE, in which there was a strong positive correlation with research strength, should be a warning to the Government not to invest in higher education in further education colleges but to direct new student numbers where they will be best used.

6.8  Impact of Funding on the Nature of Teaching and Learning

  I have dealt with the consequences of the current funding arrangements for teaching and learning quality in paragraphs 3, 4 and 5 above. The central dilemma is that, while the price paid by students for higher education has gone up through liability for the payment of fees, the funding per student has gone down, making it more difficult to provide the quality of the teaching and learning experience student consumers demand, particularly in internationally oriented institutions such as LSE.

6.9  Impact of Different Modes of Study

  We are likely to see greater flexibility between different modes of study, just as we have seen it among full-time programmes (though the Government still causes major expenditure to be incurred by controlling student loans on an individual programme basis). The development of greater flexibility between modes of study must be carefully handled to ensure that the quality of the teaching and learning experience is upheld for all students, but it is not only inevitable but closely related to the need to ensure that all those able and willing to go into higher education can do so.

6.10  Effect of the Changing Patterns of Student Support and Income on the Quality of Learning

  It is probably still too early to assess the full effect of the new undergraduate funding system although it does appear that, as predicted, older students will be less willing to undertake full-time study. The student perception is that the new funding and support arrangements have a negative impact on the quality of their teaching and learning experience in a number of ways:

    (a)  Liability for fees has led to undergraduates feeling more pressure to concentrate narrowly on the syllabus for their programme at the expense of a broad learning experience.

    (b)  Many student families struggle to pay the fees, placing greater burdens on the student, with the new student support arrangements further adding to the burden and increasing debt.

    (c)  While the new loan design is good, students are facing more financial pressure because the loans themselves are too small. This is reflected in the general and growing tendency of students to seek paid employment to fill their cash gap, but many students feel that to do so further erodes the quality of their learning experience. The London Weighting element in student loans does not sufficiently recognise the additional costs of studying and living in the capital.

6.11  Accountability of Universities for Quality

  Universities are now more exposed to the market than ever before, though even four years ago only some 30 per cent of LSE students were LEA-supported. While the fee changes have accelerated the trend, students increasingly perceiving greater accountability as part of their rights as customers for the product we offer, there is a general, and welcome, tendency towards greater accountability of all bodies serving the public.

6.12  Involvement in Local Communities

  Because LSE is situated in Central London, its immediate surrounding community is largely made up of local, national and international public and private sector organisations to whom the School provides valuable specialist expertise and policy advice. Our students' teaching and learning experience also benefits greatly from links with organisations in the locality. For example, the School has developed a parliamentary intern scheme, co-ordinated through Barry Sheerman's office, which places around 20 LSE postgraduate students with MPs to undertake research work to the mutual benefit of all parties.

  We are also mindful of our responsibility to seek to broaden participation in higher education largely through the development of outreach activities to encourage local students to consider such as option although their families have not benefited from a university education in the past. Some activities are designed to encourage entry to LSE, though given our student numbers, it is inevitable that very few will be able to take advantage of it. Most of our effort is therefore designed to familiarise local school and college students with the ambience of higher education and to improve their performance at A Level.

  I hope that this response, which comes with the support of Governors, academics and students, will assist the Sub-committee.

Professor Anthony Giddens
London School of Economics and Political Science

January 2000

1   Not printed: The Times 29 December 1999. Back

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