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


Memorandum from the Association of University Teachers (HE 29)


  The under-funding of the past expansion of UK higher education has led to deterioration in the quality of the student learning experience and a reduction in academic standards, despite the tremendous additional effort made by staff. The next phase of expansion must be properly funded if our higher education system is to play the central role in the knowledge-based, global economy envisaged for it by the government. In particular:

    —  the government should commit similar additional expenditure to improving the teaching infrastructure as it has to the modernisation of the research infrastructure;

    —  investment in teaching should include additional resources to improve substantially the current, grossly inadequate, provision for staff training and development;

    —  emphasis on the research assessment exercise should be reduced in favour of improving the status of teaching, including through the development of the Institute for Learning and Teaching;

    —  the government should take immediate steps to restore the level of expenditure of higher education as a proportion of GDP, and in the longer term should make sufficient additional investment in higher education to put the UK in the upper quartile of OECD spending;

    —  the current, and planned, complex, bureaucratic systems for quality assurance in higher education should be replaced by a process combining external examining and independent audit.

  1.  The Association of University Teachers represents over 40,000 academic and academic-related staff in UK universities, colleges and research institutes; we have members in both the "old" and "new" (post-1992) universities. We welcome the decision of the Education Sub-committee to carry out an inquiry into higher education. The inquiry is timely, given the present government's commitment to the further expansion of the system. The Sub-committee's remit correctly identifies the crucial issue facing UK higher education: the effect of past and planned increases in participation on the quality of the student learning experience. This is a subject of great concern to our members. Over recent years they have consistently expressed the view that the quality of the student experience has suffered from the under-funded expansion of higher education and from increased student financial hardship (exacerbated by the current tuition fee regime). The expansion is often presented as a great success story, but there has undoubtedly been a price to pay which is reflected in the daily experience of our members working directly with students.

  2.  The expansion of UK higher education has been spectacular (see the statistical annex to this paper). Full-time student numbers have increased by almost 75 per cent since 1990. There has not been a corresponding growth in teaching staff; on the contrary, over the same period the student staff ratio had increased from 11:1 to 17:1 (it is 14:1 in the USA and Japan; 13:1 in Germany). Funding per student has declined by 35 per cent, with the government committed to the achievement of a further 1 per cent "efficiency gain" in 2001-02, despite the extra funding provided by tuition fees. The expansion is not just a matter of sheer numbers. The student population is now much more diverse in terms of ability range, age, ethnicity and social class background. Universities and colleges have undergone a virtual revolution in their organisation and practices in order to respond to the needs of today's students.

  3.  The degree and rapidity of this change, in the context of diminishing resources, has placed great strain on the system. This strain has been absorbed by the staff, who have responded magnificently to the challenge and have increased their productivity dramatically. Although staff issues do not figure in the Sub-committee's remit for its current inquiry, we would like to point out that far from being rewarded for their efforts, academic and academic-related staff in higher education have experienced a steady erosion in both their salaries and conditions of service throughout the period of expansion (see statistical annex). Staff costs have decreased steadily as a proportion of institutional expenditure; permanent posts have been replaced by a heavy reliance on part-time staff and the use of fixed-term contracts. At the same time, workloads have increased massively. In short, staff have not only contributed to the creation of a mass higher education system through their effort and expertise; they have also, in a sense, paid for it in salary erosion, job security and career progression. Not surprisingly, growing evidence of serious recruitment and retention problems in our universities and colleges is now emerging.

  4.  The fact that the changes and expansion of recent years has been managed without any catastrophic fall in the quality of teaching and research is without question due to higher education staff. The system continues to produce high quality graduates (and many more of them) and world-class research. This is confirmed by indicators such as the proportion of students achieving good degrees and research citation counts. Also, with a very small number of exceptions, quality audits and teaching quality assessments have been positive, although it should also be said that they have often commented on inadequacies in resources, particularly access to central facilities such as libraries and computing. However, these indicators hide an underlying reality characterised by staff making superhuman efforts to cope and not always succeeding. The student, departmental and institutional assessment systems do not necessarily capture changes in the quality of the student experience and also do not necessarily tell us very much about what is happening to academic standards.

  5.  The best source of information is the students and staff themselves. In the course of preparing our evidence to the Dearing Committee, the Association carried out an extensive and detailed consultation exercise among our members about their view of the state of UK higher education. Following debates at our council meetings, the Association publicly stated that the under-funded expansion of the system had done significant damage to the quality of the student experience and had led to a reduction in academic standards. This stance contrasts with the usual position adopted by other organisations in higher education, notably the CVCP, which warn of impending crises that always seem to be about to happen but never quite do. At individual institutional level there is an understandable reluctance to talk publicly of shortcomings in the context of competition for students and funding.

  6.  The problems most frequently reported by our members include: larger class/lecture sizes with a sharp decrease in small group teaching and in opportunities to provide support to individual students; reductions in laboratory and other practical work because of cost-cutting or pressure on facilities; and lack of adequate student access to libraries and computing facilities. Lecturers also talk of their difficulties in finding time within intensive workloads to pursue their own professional development, for example, to learn how to use new IT-based systems to enhance their teaching. Student poverty also, of course, has a direct and sometimes decisive impact on student learning. Indeed, this is currently by far the most common source of the concerns expressed by our members. They increasingly comment on the difficulties experienced by students who are forced to work long hours in part-time jobs during term time in order to make ends meet, and who, as a consequence, fall behind in their academic work and perform below their abilities. There may be a number of reasons for the recent increase in non-completion ("drop-out") rates in higher education, but almost every lecturer seems to know of individual examples of students failing to complete courses for financial reasons. In addition, there is less time to offer pastoral support and advice to students who encounter personal or study-related problems, despite the fact that the demand for such support has increased significantly because of the diversification of the student population.

  7.  The question of academic standards is more controversial. The "dumbing down" hypothesis is notoriously difficult to test, because there is not always very clear agreement on the standards themselves. However, it is reasonable to expect a deterioration in the quality of the student learning experience to be translated into poorer results, assuming the application of the same standards. Since there is no noticeable decline in student achievement as measured, for example, by degree classification, it is at least possible that there has been a lowering of standards. We can only report our members' comments on this. Some certainly believe that there has been an element of grade inflation as a result of the sheer pressure of student numbers and a consequent—and not necessarily even conscious—lowering of the academic hurdles in order to avoid a significant increase in failure rates. They refer to being forced to use less time-consuming, and less rigorous, assessment techniques, and also to the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between original student work and plagiarised work when lecturers do not have time to monitor the progress of individual students properly. Ironically, the introduction of modular courses often leads to more frequent assessment of students but not necessarily to a consistent and co-ordinated approach to their academic development.

  8.  The Association believes very strongly in the further expansion of our higher education system. We support the Prime Minister's target of raising the participation rate to 50 per cent of 18-30 year olds by 2009; we also support his target of raising the UK market share of overseas students from the present 17 per cent to 25 per cent by 2005. However, the next phase of expansion must not repeat the mistakes of the past. In some respects it will be more difficult to manage effectively. For example, there is a strong consensus in favour of widening access to higher education to include groups that are currently under-represented. In relation to social class, for example, although in sheer numbers participation in higher education has increased among all socio-economic groups, the gap in participation between the top and bottom groups has actually widened over the last decade. This is a deeply entrenched problem in our society and will require considerable resources to solve. Also, overseas students will only be attracted to our institutions if their special needs are properly catered for.

  9.  We are dismayed by the prospect of a further cut in the unit of resource for higher education. We are in no doubt that further under-funded expansion will seriously reduce quality, lead to higher and higher student drop-out rates, reduce equality of opportunity by making students increasingly reliant on their individual financial resources and greatly exacerbate staff recruitment and retention problems. The government has ambitious plans for higher education over the next decade. We welcome the recognition of the pivotal role that higher education plays in the knowledge economy. Now is the time to make a substantial additional investment. Rather than continuing to rely on staff to paper over the many cracks in the system, we should aim to create the modern, inclusive, responsive and innovative higher education system that the nation needs.

  10.  In our response to the report of the Dearing Committee, we recommended that in the longer term our investment in higher education should be increased to a level sufficient to put the UK in the upper quartile of OECD national spending as a proportion of GDP. According to Treasury figures the proportion has fallen from 0.7 per cent to 0.6 per cent over the last three years. In 1995 (the most recent year for which data are available) only three OECD members, Luxembourg, Korea and Japan, spent less than the UK on tertiary education in terms of direct public expenditure (see annex). In our submission to the government's current comprehensive spending review for 2001-04, we recommended that the government should commit similar additional expenditure to improving the teaching infrastructure as it has in response to the Dearing Committee's call for a modernisation of the research infrastructure. The needs in teaching are equally pressing, particularly for the creation of additional teaching posts, the improvement of learning support services and the equipping of staff, both in terms of facilities and training, to make effective use of new technology in their teaching. A more diverse student population, with a wider variety of abilities and academic backgrounds, generates a much more complex set of demands on staff, who in turn require more support, time and training to respond to them.

  11.  The Association has taken a very clear and consistent approach to quality assurance matters. We fully accept that institutions should be publicly accountable for the quality of the education that they provide. The challenge is to find a method of quality assurance that strikes the right balance between, on the one hand, generating the information about quality that students, employers and other interested parties need to make informed judgements about institutional performance, and on the other, ensuring that the quality assurance does not itself place such a burden of work on institutions that it becomes counter-productive. The teaching quality assessment system (TQA) has been a prime example of an over-bureaucratic system which has absorbed huge amounts of staff time without producing any discernible benefits. Many of our members would say that TQA is part of the quality problem rather than the solution, because of the ways in which its demands have distracted them from their teaching and research.

  12.  Our preferred solution has always been, and remains, a process which combines a strengthened version of the long-established external examining system with a national system of quality audit. Quality audit, as practised for almost a decade, first by the Higher Education Quality Council and latterly by the Quality Assurance Agency, involves an external evaluation of the adequacy of each institution's internal quality control mechanisms. It is also intended to encourage and support quality enhancement. It is about to be replaced by a unified system run by the QAA. Unlike the TQA, quality audit does not attempt to assess directly the quality of teaching in each individual academic subject. It does not therefore entail thousands of visits by assessment teams and the elaborate preparation of documentation that can disrupt normal academic work for weeks at a time. Audit is now quite a mature system and has gained a substantial degree of acceptance within higher education. It produces a published report of the acceptability of each institution's quality assurance procedures, and has in practice identified and led to the rectification of weaknesses in a number of cases. It has also proved to be a good source for the dissemination of good practice and hence of quality enhancement measures. Audit also has the advantage of providing an external check on quality assurance while recognising that the primary responsibility for delivering quality education in the classroom rests with the autonomous institutions and their professional staff.

  13.  The external examining system has served UK universities well for many years. It is an effective method of ensuring comparability of standards among institutions and has an incalculable value as a medium for the exchange of experience, knowledge and ideas among colleagues. We would like to see a strengthening of the system, in particular, by ensuring that the contribution of staff as external examiners is properly rewarded and supported by institutions. It might also be possible to incorporate some aspects of the QAA's new approach to ensuring quality and standards into an enhanced external examining system. For example, we can see some merit in the use of "benchmarking" (as proposed by the QAA) as a way of producing clearer sets of academic standards for each subject; this could be easily and usefully integrated with external examining. We hope that eventually the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) will be in a position to take overall responsibility for the external examining system, as well as national responsibility for the promotion of teaching quality. For reasons of accountability, quality audit should remain the responsibility of an independent agency.

  14.  We are very confident that the approach outlined above would work effectively. It would satisfy the requirement of public accountability without condemning staff to endless form filling and inducing cynicism about the whole quality assurance enterprise; it would also be cost effective and easily understood. Most importantly, it would give the UK a quality assurance system as transparent, rigorous and reliable as any in the world.

  15.  The relationship between teaching and research directly affects the quality of the student learning experience. In our view, advanced teaching and learning benefit significantly from taking place in an active research environment. This does not mean that all university teachers in every department must at all times be "research active", in the current research assessment exercise (RAE) jargon. The degree of active involvement in research will vary according to a variety of factors including the nature and level of teaching being undertaken and the career development and aspirations of individual staff at any particular time. The basic requirement should be that all academic staff have demonstrated their competence as researchers and that the funding system keeps open the potential for them to make original contributions to research during their careers. The Association has also for many years argued that contributions to teaching should be valued equally to contributions to research and scholarship, and that this should be reflected in all aspects of career progression, including promotion criteria. Establishing this change in culture has been an uphill struggle since the introduction of the research assessment exercise which has grossly distorted the higher education value system, not just in favour of research over teaching, but in favour of research output of particular kinds (ie those that count towards RAE ratings).

  16.  In many institutions performance in the RAE has become the overwhelming focus of their activities because of the funding and prestige that it confers. The pressure on staff to contribute to the RAE has inevitably led to an under-valuing of their contributions to other academic activities in the areas of teaching, scholarship or administration, as well as under-valuing contributions to the local, regional and national economies through applied research, training and consultancy. The RAE has promoted an invidious distinction between those whose work is submitted for assessment and those whose work is not. Regrettably, in some departments and institutions the latter are treated as second-class citizens despite the fact that it may be precisely their contributions to teaching, pastoral care, curriculum development, and administration, which enable their colleagues to concentrate on their research activities. The effect of this, apart from the unfairness and de-motivation expressed by individuals, is to undermine the professional collaboration and teamwork among academic and related staff on which the effective provision of high quality learning, teaching and research depends.

  17.  One response to these problems is to end or substantially reform the RAE itself. Apart from its damaging influence on teaching, the RAE has other, fundamental flaws. We now have a system, which relies almost exclusively on past performance as a predictor of future research success. No doubt that has a part to play in picking winners but it is not the only predictor and it does have its own peculiar limitations, like its inherent tendency to favour the tried and tested lines of enquiry over the adventurous and innovative. Over-concentration of research funding has deprived many talented researchers, especially relatively new entrants to the profession, from access to research support. The fact is that research potential is distributed very widely throughout our higher education institutions, but it is being increasingly frustrated by a funding system that operates as if it were to be found only in 15 or so universities.

  18.  We would also question the scope of the RAE: Is it equally relevant to all areas of research? It may be that, at least for as long as under-funding persists, some measure of selectivity is inevitable in certain areas of experimental science in which very expensive instrumentation and installations are required. But do the same arguments apply across all other areas of research, including, for example, theoretical science or philosophy or literary studies? It may be that a close examination of these questions would suggest a much more limited exercise in future, rather than a repeat of the comprehensive assessments that have characterised previous RAEs.

  19.  The Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) certainly had the potential to raise the status of teaching within higher education and the Association supported its establishment very strongly. Indeed, we have been campaigning actively since 1994 for the establishment of a formal system of professional accreditation open to all staff who contribute directly to student learning. However, the success of this venture depends very heavily on the provision of good facilities for staff development and training by universities and colleges. At present, even where such facilities are available, many staff find it impossible to take advantage of them because of heavy workload pressures. Higher education is still a very long way from creating a culture of lifelong learning and continuous professional development for its own staff, which of course is ironic since higher education institutions are one of the main providers of such learning and development for the rest of the country's workforce. It is difficult to find out exactly how much higher education institutions spend on staff development and training, but it is a relatively small proportion of turnover compared with other knowledge-based enterprises. As we say in paragraph 10 above, this is an aspect of the teaching infrastructure in urgent need of improvement and modernisation as a precondition for the success of any further successful expansion of student numbers and widening of access.

Association of University Teachers

January 2000

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