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


Memorandum from NATFHE (HE 115)

  1.  NATFHE—The University & College Lecturers' Union, welcomes this opportunity to give evidence to the Education and Employment Select Committee in relation to the retention of students in higher education. We represent 65,000 lecturers in the post-92 universities and colleges of higher education, and colleges of further education. Our members are at the forefront of working with so called "non-traditional" HE students, both within HE institutions and on HE courses delivered in FE, and crucial access routes to HE also delivered in further education colleges.

  2.  Student finance. Student finance, levels of debt and the need for students to engage in paid employment during full time studies, are undoubtedly key factors when considering student retention. NATFHE was unsurprised by the very depressing recent findings in the Student Income Expenditure Survey, showing the high level of financial difficulty being experienced by students. Whilst we welcome recent proposals to introduce bursaries, as a recognition of the problem, we believe they do not nearly go far enough in either level or scope, and that they fail to recognise the difficulties being faced by mature students, especially those with children. We continue to urge a return to a system of maintenance grants and of Cubie-style post-graduation contributions to fee costs linked to above-average earnings.

  3.  However in this evidence we wish to focus on the second area identified by the Select Committee: the quality of teaching as it relates to student retention. In our view this area has been relatively neglected in the debate on increasing access to HE for a broader social and ethnic group of both young and mature students, and retaining them successfully within the HE system.

  4.  Drop out rates and academic support. It is crucial that work is now done to consolidate the success of some institutions in increasing the numbers of students from non-traditional HE backgrounds, by ensuring that the support is in place both for the students themselves, and for the staff who teach and support their learning. The post-92 HEIs have done well in recruiting non-traditional students. They take 33 per cent of students from the lower social classes, against a benchmark of 30 per cent, in comparison to the pre-92 universities who take 19 per cent against a benchmark of 21 per cent.

  5.  However there is also a clear link between drop-out rates and the numbers of students coming in to higher education from non-traditional HE backgrounds. The institutions with the highest dropout rates are not only those with the greatest numbers of such students, they are also those with the lowest teaching incomes per student and the highest staff student ratios (see extract from NATFHE: "Dismantling the Ivory Tower", January 2000, pp13-14, attached as appendix). Whilst a great number of factors will affect drop out rates—crucially, as acknowledged above, those to do with student finance and with family responsibilities—the quality and nature of academic and pastoral support that students receive are fundamental to student retention.

  6.  Teaching and learning strategies. It might seem self evident that it is not enough to reach out and recruit a diverse range of students who may have relatively little preparation for HE study, and then to treat them and teach them exactly as more "selective" students are treated. Yet in many cases this is exactly what happens. In many institutions there is still a tradition of assigning the least experienced lecturers—and postgraduate students—to teach first year students, who are undergoing a vital period of transition from access and other routes to HE. Whilst HEIs have been active in preparing teaching and learning strategies over the last couple of years, and are increasingly acknowledging the importance of teaching with HE, only a small minority of these strategies make any reference to the institution's own strategy for widening participation and increasing access.

  7.  Course structure and the academic year. Indeed some recent developments in higher education, in terms of self-directed learning, and the reduction of lecturer and classroom contact concomitant on the introduction of semesters, and a shorter teaching year, increase the pressure on students to be able to work autonomously in higher education with less and less personal support from academic and support staff. In fact, it is only the most able, confident and well-prepared students who can be expected to organise their own learning from the outset.

  8.  A major reason why NATFHE has always had reservations about the semesterisation and modularisation of HE is that it puts yet more pressure on staff and students to complete teaching in a shorter time scale and to reduce staff student contact. The concentration on assessment for a greater number of units within a course means less time for teaching and less opportunity to make the conceptual transition to HE during the crucial first year.

  9.  Levels of teaching. For years now our members in the post-92 institutions have been told by their managements that they "over teach", and that contact hours must be reduced and class sizes increased. In practice, however, the lecturer's experience has been that as more and more—both young and mature—students come into HE, with lower levels of preparation and formal attainment, their support and teaching needs are greater and greater. Staff feel profound frustration at not being able to offer these students the support they need and deserve.

  10.  And yet evidence from further education, a sector with considerable experience of working with non-traditional HE students, both in FE-delivered HE courses, and in access routes, shows that such students succeed when they are taught in small groups where they can receive the kind of individual attention they often need. A HEFCE study has demonstrated that the costs of teaching HE in FE are equally high, despite lower average salaries in FE, because the students in FECs receive more staff contact and teaching hours. (Study of the Relative Costs of HE Provision in FE Colleges and HE Institutions. November 1998).

  11.  Similarly a recent HEFCE-funded pilot to examine the feasibility of running accelerated degree programmes, utilising a three-semester year, found that where satisfaction levels were high amongst students a significant factor was the effect of working in small student groups with a high level of academic staff support and attention. (Changing Times—The Extended Academic Year Experiment. Report to HEFCE by Segal Quince Wicksteed. December 1999).

  12.  Teaching and research. To support a diverse student body, with a wide range of needs, institutions need to be able to provide sufficient staffing levels and to support their staff to ensure they work effectively with differing groups of students. This means attention to staff numbers, class sizes and consideration of staff and professional development issues for all staff, including part-timers. Work on widening participation without additional staffing resources puts considerable pressure on staff and creates yet further tension between research and teaching, in institutions where there is an active commitment to working with non-traditional students. Serious consideration of these matters must entail grasping the nettle of the resource relationship between research funding and funding for teaching, and the additional disadvantage that some "teaching and access strong" institutions carry, in not having access to library, laboratory, equipment and post-graduate teaching resources, to the same degree as those institutions with significant funding council research funds.

  13.  These comments clearly also relate to the third area of the Select Committee's concern—the current debate on higher education funding. All that has been said above has major implications for the funding for teaching in institutions with significant numbers of non-traditional students. In addition to the need for additional contact time and smaller classes, non-traditional students may have other support needs in areas such as key skills, English as a second language, and support for disabled students.

  14.  Nonetheless it is our belief extra funding would in time be balanced out by the saving to government, when it is offset against otherwise wasted student fees and treasury funding for students up until the point at which they drop out. Although many students may feel that even a limited experience of HE is not time and money entirely wasted, there is no doubt that most students enter HE in order to achieve qualifications, and there is a loss to them and to government when they leave without doing so.

  15.  Support for developing teaching. In relation to the funding debate another key issue is the question of staff development, the professionalisation of teaching, and the provision of funding both to pay for staff time and to reward teaching excellence. NATFHE has supported moves to develop good teaching and to disseminate good practice, in relation to the sector as a whole. Nonetheless this is of particular importance in the context of the debate on creating mass participation in higher education, and retaining new students within the system.

  16.  Part-time hourly paid teaching. NATFHE sees the successful development of the Institute for Learning and Teaching (ILT) as a key plank in the strategy for recognising, developing and rewarding teaching in HE. However it is vital that all those teaching in HE have access to ILT membership, and to a variety of forms of teacher training and staff development. According to the figures compiled for the Bett Committee's Inquiry into HE Pay and Conditions, just over a third of all non-clinical academic staff work part-time. In the post-92 universities and HE colleges, where the majority of non-traditional students are taught, 44 per cent of academic staff are part-time, and 37 per cent are employed on an hourly paid, casual basis.

  17.  Whilst some of these hourly paid staff may teach relatively small numbers of hours, others we know will be teaching at levels approaching that of full time lecturing staff. Yet part-time lecturers are less likely to receive training and staff development, and very unlikely to figure in institutional strategic plans for either teaching and learning or widening participation.

  18.  To the student their lecturer's part-time status is irrelevant. They expect equal levels of professionalism and support whoever is teaching them. NATFHE is currently conducting a study of part-time lecturers and their HE teaching aspirations, staff development and attitudes to the ILT, under the auspices of the DfEE Union Learning Fund, and in partnership with the ILT, the HE National Training Organisation, the AUT, and three partner institutions. Early results from the questionnaire element of the project show that 43 per cent of the respondent part-time lecturers in the three institutions had learned about HE teaching either "on the job" with informal advice from colleagues, or without any support.

  19.  And yet the same survey shows a very high level of support for the proposition that all those teaching in HE should be trained to do so, including from those professionals pursuing careers outside higher education and doing relatively small amounts of HE teaching. Over half of the respondents indicated an interest in either ILT membership or associateship, with that percentage increasing when those who had already taken early retirement were removed from the statistics.

  20.  These early findings suggest that the vast army of part-time lecturers is a fertile resource in terms of the project to professionalise and develop the quality of teaching in HE. The same is true of the very significant numbers of post graduate students who provide vital levels of support to departments in undertaking teaching, demonstrating and marking roles, and who also responded in this particular survey in terms of enthusiasm for teaching induction, training and ILT membership. It is vital that in mapping the resources necessary to encourage ILT membership, provide appropriate staff development and CPD opportunities and develop relevant reward strategies, part-time lecturers are not left out of the equation.

  21.  If there is a problem in that institutions tend not to link—explicitly at least—their teaching and learning strategies with their strategies for recruiting and retaining a wider group of students, then there is a double problem in relation to part-time lecturers and post graduate tutors in that they may feature in neither. They provide very significant levels of undergraduate teaching, often in the first year which is so crucial to retention, and need the institutional and collegial support to enable them, in turn, to support students new to higher education.


January 2001

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