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


Memorandum from the Standing Conference of Principals (HE 26)


  1.  SCOP represents the colleges and institutes of higher education, a broad range of institutions with distinctive and diverse missions, providing high quality and accessible higher education. They are publicly-designated higher education institutions, as defined in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, and are subject to the same quality and accountability processes as universities. Within the total higher education sector, HE colleges currently educate about 10% of all students. Their market share in areas of particular strength and specialism is, however, much higher with, for example, 34% of all creative arts students, 31% of all teacher education and 23% of agricultural studies. They are also major providers in business studies, nursing and the professions allied to medicine.

  2.  We believe that institutional diversity is an essential and valuable element of the higher education sector. It offers real choices to learners and employers and helps to meet the needs of a wide range of students. While higher education colleges themselves are highly diverse types of institution, there are some key strengths which many HE colleges or groups of colleges demonstrate. These include: a commitment to more student-centred and personal learning communities based on collegial values; a strong professional and vocational ethos particularly in major areas such as education, health professions and business studies; a concentration of expertise in the creative arts, including highly-intensive conservatoires in music and the performing arts and leading specialist art and design institutions; a key role in meeting regional and sub-regional needs and in tackling pervasive educational disadvantage.

  3.  Diversity, wider participation and high quality provision within higher education are all fundamental to the delivery of an inclusive society and a dynamic and modern economy, able to compete on a global scale. The educated and trained people which higher education provides are critical to future economic growth and the exploitation of knowledge. We know that HE colleges are well-placed to meet the future challenges of a learning society and knowledge-based economy in responsive and innovative ways.


  4.  Our evidence highlights the following key messages:

Diversity and innovation

  We need to nurture and enhance diversity within the higher education sector to satisfy the wide range of learning needs and to provide a foundation to promote continuing innovation and improvement.

Quality and standards

  We need to ensure that all HE institutions and other providers can demonstrate high quality learning in an appropriate quality framework.

Learning focused on students' aspirations and needs

  We need to be responsive to the growing range of student learning needs and to provide ever-more stimulating and challenging environments and approaches to help people to develop as reflective, lifelong learners.

The relationship between research and teaching

  We need a better balance between the status, rewards and incentives attached to research and teaching within the sector, together with closer links between the two activities.


  We need to be explicit about increasing professionalism in higher education teaching, through developments such as the Institute for Learning and Teaching and the new Subject Centres.


  Funding needs to recognise and nurture diversity of institutions and missions, and to avoid creating arbitrary barriers to further institutional development.


  5.  We need to nurture and enhance diversity within the higher education sector to satisfy the wide range of learning needs and to provide a foundation to promote continuing innovation and improvement. Successful and innovative higher education colleges are vital if the system is to remain diverse and able to respond to the needs of the wide variety of learners now in the UK system.

  6.  The benefits of diversity include:

    —  Strength and resilience to face a climate of continuing change and development;

    —  The ability to offer a range of experience and choice to learners, employers and other stakeholders;

    —  Encouraging innovation and development;

    —  Bringing a broader range of people into higher education both as learners and teachers.

  7.  By its nature, diversity cannot and should not be managed and, as such, it is inappropriate to set any artificial limits or constraints. The controlling factors should be whether institutions can attract students and funding, demonstrate quality teaching, support scholarly activities and appropriate research, and manage their affairs efficiently and effectively.

  8.  Institutional diversity takes many forms, including: mission; structure; academic profile; teaching and learning strategies; size; the balance between local/regional/national and international markets. We need a system which continues to value and build on our diverse strengths rather than seeking to rationalise provision.

  9.  To illustrate the above point, HE colleges are already a highly diverse grouping of institutions. There are 60 colleges of higher education in the UK (47 in England, 7 in Scotland, 4 in Wales, 2 in Northern Ireland). Some are large, multi-faculty institutions with more students than many universities; some award their own degrees; others award those of universities; some are at the forefront of teaching and research in particular areas both nationally and internationally; some are small or specialist institutions—notably in the areas of art and design, music and the performing arts, agriculture and teacher education. About one third of the sector consists of Church colleges, which encompass the whole range of types of institution.

  10.  HE colleges play an important role in their regions and are situated in a variety of locations. Some are based in the heart of inner cities, addressing urban educational disadvantage and providing an accessible route to higher education for their local communities (eg: Newman College; Liverpool Hope; University of Birmingham, Westhill). Others are located in dispersed, rural areas and, in some cases, are the only or major higher education institution in their county or region. Such institutions have a profound impact on their locality, providing a social, cultural and economic focus for the area, as well as tackling pervasive rural educational disadvantage. Examples of this include: the work by St Martin's College and Cumbria College of Art and Design in extending opportunities in Cumbria; the role of University College Worcester as the sole HEI in its county; and Falmouth College of Arts, leading higher education development in Cornwall.

  11.  A growing number of colleges have won the right to award their own degrees. Many more are intending to apply now that the new criteria for degree-awarding powers have been finalised. Nine colleges with degree-awarding powers have also been granted the right to use the `university college' title. We believe it is vitally important for the future health of the sector that institutions continue to develop and grow as autonomous organisations and are not subject to unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions on their roles and missions.


  12.  We need to ensure that all HE institutions and other providers are delivering high quality learning in an appropriate quality framework. To this end, SCOP has worked with CVCP to establish and support the Quality Assurance Agency and to develop a new quality assurance framework which provides proper accountability within a more streamlined and integrated process.

  13.  It is important that the outputs from the new process will: assure public confidence in quality and standards; provide accessible public information; help institutions to enhance the quality of their provision; and meet the statutory responsibilities of the respective funding bodies. The new process needs to be applied equitably and to make best use of existing internal institutional processes and materials. Quality improvement could suffer if there is an over-emphasis on external, extra-institutional procedures. We have welcomed the development of broad benchmark standards as part of the new process, while stressing that such standards should not become overly prescriptive and discourage innovation within and across subject disciplines.

  14.  We have also supported the emphasis on outputs and codes of practice which, if sensitively applied, should enable individual institutions to develop their programmes and quality assurance mechanisms in ways which best reflect their aims and missions.


  15.  Higher education must continue to be responsive to the growing range of student learning needs and to provide ever-more stimulating and challenging environments to help people to develop as reflective, lifelong learners.

  16.  SCOP welcomes the fact that much of the planned expansion in higher education provision will be through part-time and mature students that have not traditionally entered higher education before or students from the lowest income families. HE colleges are well prepared to meet this challenge. The recently published HE performance indicators[2] show that nearly three-quarters of HE colleges attract significantly higher mature student first year entrants than the UK sector average of 27%. HE colleges also have well-integrated strategies for attracting students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. They have performed well in ensuring that students progress and are successful in obtaining their degrees. An analysis of the HE performance indicators (Projected learning outcomes and efficiencies) shows that 81% of SCOP members are out-performing the UK efficiency benchmark; this compares to 61% of universities.

  17.  HE colleges have traditionally placed great emphasis on preparing people for professional work and life. They provide high quality, student-centred learning environments and have been particularly successful in integrating work experience and work-based learning into their programmes. A 1999 survey by the National Centre for Work Experience highlighted the achievements of the colleges in this area. The survey indicated that 28% of HE college students undertake some form of structured work experience; this contrasts with 17% in new universities and 11% in the old universities respectively. Institutions have recognised the need to continue to adapt their approaches, given the high proportion of students who now also undertake some form of paid work while studying. There is a growing need for institutions to enable these students to reflect on their work experiences and to give appropriate recognition for the range of skills which such experience may develop.

  18.  HE college graduates are also often amongst the most employable. An analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency on the first destinations of graduates in 1996/97, taking account both of graduates entering employment and those going on to further study, shows a majority of HE colleges with employability ratings of over 70% (the sector average was 62%). Furthermore when graduates were tracked three years after graduating, the employment rate of graduates from HE colleges was is in excess of 97.5%, well above the national average.[3]

  19.  SCOP has welcomed the emerging Government consultation on the development of new foundation degrees focused on broadly vocational areas and targeted mainly at people already in employment. We believe that the HE colleges should play the major role within our sector in developing these new programmes. We also support the Government's agenda to enhance and promote employment-related key skills in the teaching and learning of all students. HE colleges want to respond positively to the challenge of developing and delivering flexible programmes and will look to increases in funding to achieve these goals and maintain high quality provision for all students.

  20.  The creative arts is a key area where the HE colleges produce top quality graduates who make a major contribution to Britain's strength in the cultural and creative industries. The 1998 Competitiveness White Paper[4] emphasised individual knowledge, skills and creativity as essential to produce the high-value products and services the country needs for the new century. Both Government and independent reports have confirmed that the UK has a positive world-wide reputation for creativity. The Government's own recent report[5] confirms that the cultural and creative industries currently employ 1.4 million people and generate revenues of £60 billion (4% of GDP). Employment growth in the creative industries is now 5%, twice the national average. These findings were backed up by Demos, the independent think tank, in its recent paper on the growth of Britain's new cultural entrepreneurs working in multimedia and design.[6]

  21.  Another vital role for HE Colleges in this arena is as incubators for creative and cultural entrepreneurs. Higher education provides a stimulating environment, enabling experimentation and drawing on cultural diversity. It can also nurture and support smaller and emerging companies, which invariably lack the resources to exploit and develop their creative ideas and concepts for commercial development. A good example of this is the work of the Consortium of Art and Design in the South East (CADISE) which brings together a grouping of specialist colleges to analyse and meet the needs of SMEs through professional upskilling, development and consultancy. The benefits of such initiatives are tangible.


  22.  We need a better balance between the status, rewards and incentives attached to research and teaching and closer links between the two activities. It is traditionally asserted that one of the key strengths of higher education is the interrelationship between teaching, scholarship and research; more needs to be done to demonstrate this in action. SCOP believes that any future system to assess research needs to build in a more holistic view of the types of valuable research and the ways in which this feeds through to improve teaching and scholarship. We would welcome greater recognition of collaborative research arrangements and believe that the current Research Assessment Exercise has over-emphasised competition to the detriment of collaboration. We would also welcome more emphasis on links between teaching and research and, in particular, a greater recognition of pedagogical research.

  23.  Research has a crucial role to play in the knowledge-based, global economy. While much attention is rightly focused on scientific innovation, excellent research of national and international significance exists within the creative arts and other key disciplines in the college part of the sector. The performance of HE colleges in the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise demonstrated that research excellence, both national and international, can and does exist in many non-university higher education institutions. SCOP believes that a greater balance is needed between selectivity and the fostering of new and emerging research disciplines to reflect the fast-changing world in which we live and work. More attention should be focused on developing and sustaining these new, key research areas, particularly those related to the creative arts. As highlighted above, the future competitiveness of the UK will be closely linked to its successes in the creative industries.


  24.  We need to be explicit about increasing professionalism in higher education teaching, through developments such as the Institute for Learning and Teaching and the new Subject Centres.

  25.  SCOP and CVCP worked together to establish the Institute for Learning and Teaching, with support from the UK funding bodies, staff unions, student bodies and other key stakeholders. We believe that the ILT will make a real impact on the sector through accreditation of training programmes and its focus on continuing professional development for all staff engaged in learning and teaching in higher education. We are confident that institutions will also wish to play their part in ensuring that rewards for good teaching are embedded within their own value systems and promotion criteria. This will go some way towards addressing the current imbalance in status between teaching and research.

  26.  Institutions need to develop as learning organisations for their own staff through more systematic career development opportunities which reflect the changing nature of higher education and the role of academics in enabling and encouraging learning. We want to deliver the vision in the Bett Report[7] of a system which rewards and motivates high quality staff, recognises the changing demands upon them, invests in their development and continues to provide world-class higher education.


  27.  Funding needs to recognise and nurture diversity and to encourage institutions to develop further their own individual missions and targets.

  28.  SCOP supports an approach based on funding by mission. This would give institutions the freedom they need to pursue their particular missions within a framework of broad purposes for higher education (not all of which would necessarily need to be met within any one institution). There would, of course, continue to be a need for some sector-wide indicators to meet the demands of public accountability. Core funding allocations would, however, be largely determined on the basis of institutional plans showing what had been done with funds previously received and setting new targets and objectives for the next funding period.

  29.  SCOP supports the CVCP's analysis in its Spending Review 2000 submission[8] that a further short-term investment of £500 million in the next spending review period is required to support standards and assure the quality of teaching and learning. This will enable the sector to expand high quality provision, underpinned by the necessary investment in teaching equipment and communications and information technologies (C&IT) to keep UK higher education globally competitive and recognised for excellence. Additional financial support is also essential for widening participation and expansion. We believe, however, that this should form part of core funding per student. Strategies for social inclusion are integral to institutional recruitment strategies and we feel that to maintain `special initiative' funding installs barriers to inclusion and thwarts progress in local partnerships and collaborative ventures.

  30.  New investment is also needed to modernise pay structures, alleviate emerging recruitment and retention problems and to invest in effective staff development and performance review (as highlighted in the Bett Report). Excellent higher education staff are vital to the survival and prosperity of institutions and only by ensuring equal pay for work of equal value and investing further in their staff can institutions deliver the quality learning environment which students deserve and demand.

  31.  SCOP welcomed the recent establishment of the Higher Education Reach-Out to Business and the Community Fund (HEROBAC), which encourages institutions to collaborate with industry, business and local communities. SCOP would, however, wish to see further investment of £150 million to sustain this `third leg' of funding. In the longer-term we believe this should be built into core funding of institutions against their own missions and targets.

  32.  SCOP endorsed the introduction of a student contribution towards the cost of tuition both to recognise the private benefits of higher education to the individual and to contribute towards the growing funding gap. We continue, however, to have concerns about the abolition of the maintenance grant and its possible impact on widening participation amongst mature students and poorer social groups. The recent drop in mature student numbers is particularly worrying in this context. Work has recently been commissioned by the Department for Education and Employment to analyse the mature student market and the reasons for the drop in numbers. SCOP is represented on the project steering group and will be keen to monitor the project's findings.


  33.  We need to be increasingly aspirational and ambitious in what we expect from our higher education system both now and in the future. A genuine learning society and knowledge-based economy necessitate a responsive, resourceful and creative higher education sector.

  34.  HE colleges already play a full part in producing the skilled and creative graduates to take Britain forward into the 21st century, extending opportunity to all those able to benefit from the higher education learning environment. We believe that the diverse strengths of our sector must be maintained and improved to meet growing and changing learning needs, to facilitate innovation and to provide more high quality and accessible higher education.

Standing Conference of Principals (SCOP)

January 2000

2   Performance Indicators in Higher Education, HEFCE, December 1999 Back

3   Moving on: graduate careers three years after graduation IER, DfEE & CSU, 1 Back

4   Our Competitive Future: Building the Knowledge Driven Economy, DTI, 1998 Back

5   Creative Exports: Our Hidden Potential,CMS, 1999 Back

6   The Independents: Britain's New Cultural Entrepreneurs, Demos, 1999 Back

7   Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, Sir Michael Bett, 1999 Back

8   Investing in universities and colleges for global success, CVCP, December 1999 Back

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