Memorandum from Dr Mark Ellis, Huddersfield
Technical College (HE 140)
1. The following observations are based
on my experience as a tutor at Huddersfield Technical College
and part-time lecturer at Huddersfield University. At Huddersfield
Technical College, I run the Performing Arts Section with approximately
100 full-time students studying music, dance and drama; about
70 per cent of the students who complete proceed to Higher Education.
While these observations are by nature anecdotal rather than statistical,
they are probably broadly reflective of student experience across
this subject area.
2. The three aspects of higher education
specifically to be investigated by the Education and Employment
Committee partly presuppose answers to questions about retention.
Although in individual cases there may be obvious and immediate
causes for drop out, the broader issue is more complex and should
also take into account factors such as student recruitment processes,
interview arrangements, entrance qualifications and student life-styles.
Undoubtedly one of the major pressures on students
these days is financial. Students are encouraged (in some cases
perhaps irresponsibly) to borrow heavily in order to undertake
their university courses. Students from less well-off home backgrounds
do pay a reduced or nil university fee. However, the loan element
of their support package is correspondingly higher. It is important
to emphasise that this is not an increased grant but the "opportunity"
to borrow more money in the form of a higher student loan. While
the higher loan may seem to assist the less well-off student,
it will actually have the reverse effect and prove a distinct
disadvantage early in the student's career. In practice, the variable
loan bandings exacerbate rather than reduce differences in relative
wealth. Further research should be undertaken on the relative
numbers of "maximum" loan students attending each university
and "type of university". I suspect that this figure
could become a student-profile benchmark comparable with the "free
school meals" quota which is a crude (but often valid) classification
of the socio-economic make-up of a particular school.
3.1 Variability of parental contribution
A general impression is that parents pay less
than their "quota" in student support funding. Is there
any research on how much parents actually contribute to their
son's/daughter's higher education and how consistent this is?
3.2 Long-term financial factors
In large-scale economic terms, the next generation
will have to be more self-sufficient regarding pension arrangements,
while starting their working lives with considerable debts. They
will be expected to fund their children's education in turn (perhaps
to an even greater extent). Thus, compared with graduates from
the "pre-loan era", this group will face three additional
major financial obstacles: repayment of their own loans, establishing
a pension and supporting their own children through college. This
will make it near impossible for may graduates from poorer home
backgrounds (ie those with maximum loans) to achieve the level
of increase in their standard of living which might be expected
in the twenty-first century.
3.3 The limited subsidies are unevenly distributed
It is widely believed that courses at older
universities are relatively better subsidised. These universities
tend to attract students from wealthier backgrounds. Furthermore,
the selection procedures are relatively rigorous. Almost certainly
there is a correlation between extent of selection and level of
The higher level of tutorial support offered
at the older universities is also reflected in their high retention
rates. Increased funding should be made available to reinforce
tutorial support at the newer and less well established institutions.
3.4 Students are distracted from their studies
by working in term time
Students at many universities take up term time
work often in relatively low paid jobs. Some universities limit
the amount of work a student can undertake during term time, and
this should be encouraged more widely.
3.5 Student lifestyle
Nevertheless, studies of student expenditure
have shown that after accommodation, drink is one of the major
expenses. A culture that allows and even encourages young adults
to build up debts, which are substantially increased because of
alcohol consumption, is storing up serious health, moral and economic
problems for the future. At one time drink and debt were seen
as causes of major social problems; now students are encouraged
along those lines.
3.6 Relative costs of subjects
At the moment there is no significant difference
between course costs to students. Thus, for example, a medical
studentwho would cost a great deal more to educate that
an history student (even on a year-for-year basis)pays
the same fee as for any other subject. Equally the trained medic
would probably have a higher earning potential. Yet the university
fees are set at the same level. It would be logical to relate
fees at least partially according to the actual cost of the course.
4. RELATIVE DECLINE
The number of students in Higher Education has
expanded rapidly. Because of the large percentage increase in
numbers, students of a relatively lower calibre are recruited;
this places the student under greater pressure to achieve academically,
and hence increases the likelihood of drop out. The rate of expansion
is often incompatible with maintaining consistent and high academic
standards and a high student retention rate.
4.1 Pressure to recruit students at HE level
Higher education institutions are under pressure
to attract students to fulfil artificial quotas. This means that,
in some cases, students are being accepted with relatively low
"A" Level results. For example, one of my "A"
level students from last year was offered a place to study for
a science degree on the basis of a single E grade at "A"
4.2 Need for a consistent graduate attainment
Employers in particular, and the wider community
in general, do not benefit from an inconsistent or low standard
of graduate attainment. There should be greater emphasis on the
development of non-degree vocational courses, such as HNDs, for
those students who have the potential to benefit from higher education,
but are not necessarily of degree calibre.
4.3 Consistency of degree gradings
To ensure consistency between university courses,
for all major subject areas there should be one common paper across
the country taken as part of the degree award. The perceived value
of a degree is an important factor in motivating students to complete
their chosen course.
4.4 Minimum requirements for graduate entry
A nationally imposed minimum entry for a degree
course would immediately raise the level of recruitment and students'
expectations/ambitions. The level could be set at, for example,
20 UCAS points plus GCSE Maths and English at grade B. I have
come across specific instances of students who drop "A"
level subjects and attainment levels in response to a low admission
offer from a university.
5. QUALITY OF
I believe that there is little objective assessment
of teaching skills at university level. The "Call for Evidence"
specifically mentions the "recruitment of highly qualified
teachers in higher education". How are "highly qualified
teachers" assessed? Does this refer to lecturers at university
who have high subject-specific academic qualifications or does
it refer directly to a teaching qualification? Universities tend
not to look for or even expect a teaching qualification from their
academic staff; in general they rank qualifications, research
experience (and evidence) as higher priorities.
5.1 Comparison with teaching documentation
in other sectors of education
At FE level the teaching process is subjected
to several layers of scrutiny. All new tutors are expected to
obtain a teaching qualification, (typically either City and Guilds
730 or PGCE). There are annual and documented classroom observations,
which (though only informally graded) are used to inform the processes
of action planning and staff development. BTec courses are subject
to both internal and external moderation. "A" level
examsand the AS and A2 replacementsare externally
examined and moderated. In addition, there are regular FEFC inspections.
1. The long-term large-scale implications
of large numbers starting work in debt need to be carefully researched.
Can lower and even middle-income groups realistically cope with
the individual debt burden now being accumulated together with
the responsibility for pension arrangements?
2. Universities should carefully regulate
how much work students can undertake during term-time. Universities
are centrally funded and as such taxpayers have a right to feel
that their contribution to the education system is being fully
taken up by the students for whom it is intended.
3. Subsidising the education of less well-off
students. Realistically, there will have to be an increase in
taxation if the unacceptable level of student debt is to be reduced.
To make this politically acceptable, the tax might have to be
a graduate tax.
4. Consideration of differential charging
for university fees according to actual cost of tuition and/or
5. Wider general education for students
on financial management, and long-term planning.
6. Externally set minimum grades for university
entrance with a corresponding expansion in HND courses for less
academically inclined students.
Dr Mark Ellis