Examination of Witness (Questions 80-89)|
22 MARCH 2004
Q80 Dr Iddon: Why is that?
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I have
seen that. I am afraid I do not know enough about the basis of
the story, I have only seen the headlines. Whether it is another
version of improving A Level grades every year I do not know.
What I would say is at times in the past it does not necessarily
follow that people do not deserve firsts or standards are in some
sense falling. There are two sides to that question.
Q81 Dr Iddon: Do you think the quality
of teaching in higher education is audited adequately by the QAA
as the research was previously by the RAE?
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I personally
do. As a vice-chancellor I have welcomed the audit procedures
for teaching that we have had in the pastforgive me, I
keep coming back to that experience rather than talking about
my new post, but it may be relevant in this context. The first
round of teaching quality assessment was very detailed and it
was a very heavy load on universities. Most, if not all, universities
were not teaching badly, that was not an outcome of the exercise.
I think it encouraged many universities to be much more disciplined
about their internal procedures, and I think that was helpful.
Probably, as with the RAE, through that there probably has been
an overall improvement in the quality of teaching. I think the
fact that QAA has now shifted to what is now called institutional
audit, where the whole university is looked at rather than subject
by subject with a lighter touch, I think is highly appropriate.
My guess is it is about right. There is a tremendous amount of
wrangling to produce the agreement of the system which is now
in place and obviously different interests were represented in
that. I am comfortable with where we are now.
Q82 Chairman: Do you not think this nonsense
of external examiners and 2/1s and 2/2s has had its day? Should
it go to a grade point average and be a bit grown-up and modern
about it. You must have marked many, many papers in your time
and the difference between a 67% and a 68%, which can make a big
difference to somebody's career, is just fictitious, is it not?
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think
you are making a good case, Chairman
Q83 Chairman: Do you agree that the time
has come for a re-examination.
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: These
systems have been with us for a long time and it may not be insignificant
that the 2008 version of the research assessment exercise has
moved towards what is in effect a grade point average.
Q84 Dr Harris: What do you think the
Department should be doing about the pay gap in universities between
men and women or is just for the universities to deal with despite
the fact that it is all pretty much public money?
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I am
sure the Department should be concerned about it. Again, those
are not statistics I have at my fingertips in a national sense
because it is not something that I have yet had time to look at.
Q85 Dr Harris: There is a gap and I know
everyone is concerned about it. I am just wondering what action
can be taken, might one of the options for action be no action
at all, leave it to the university.
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: I think
what always has to be done in these kind of situationsand
I keep coming back to your original question on evidence-based
policyis we need to understand what produces the gap. I
could speculate but I am not sure that there has been enough research
to understand that gap. I am very concerned about any prima
facie evidence of inequality, whether it is gender or any
other dimension. One of the problems in universities is that you
are dealing with very long time periods in terms of promotion
through the usual criteria for promotion, although one of the
things that universities have done to respond to this is actually
amend their promotion criteria and that will begin to change the
Q86 Dr Harris: Let me look at another
question, which is this issue of access again. There is going
to be an office to check that there is good access. I have asked
the Secretary of State this question and I never had an answerI
call it the West Oxford questiona university like Oxford
does not get enough people from poorer backgrounds applyingthis
is Oxford England, not Oxford Australia, let us deal with where
we are hereand yet they are going to be told that the solution
to their funding problems is to increase fees on students, including
poor students, through top-up fees. If, as the British evidence
suggests, that might reduce the number of applications to Oxford
compared to other universities which do not raise the funding
then they are not going to be allowed to levy these fees presumably
by this Office for Fair Access because they are going to get a
decline in applications from poorer students. How do they break
out of that vicious circle?
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: Again,
I cannot comment in detail, Chairman, about what will happen in
a particular university. My intuition will be that it will not
be difficult for them. Indeed Cambridge and Imperial College have
given the lead on that by announcing bursary schemes which will
attract students from poorer backgrounds.
Q87 Dr Harris: That is using the money
they were going to raise. In theory they could raise the fees
and then give a huge chunk of that money to bursaries and they
would be no better off than not having imposed the debt in the
first place or the government not having abolished the grants
in the first place. There is still a cost to doing that, that
is what my constituents in Oxford tell me, they do not see a way
round that unless it is fudged by the Office for Fair Access.
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: It
is a cost, Chairman, but it is a relatively small part of the
prospective fee income, as I understand it.
Q88 Mr McWalter: The Roberts Report was
very concerned about contract research staff and it recommended
having market related salaries for key academic staff which Roberts
believed would benefit scientists and engineers, particularly
those engaged in research of international quality. That would
mean taking on lecturers' unions, would it not? Are you going
to be prepared to do that?
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: What
is happening on those kind of pay structures is there is certainly
proper union concerns that of course salaries should be good and
better than they are. Universities are actually more able within
existing structures to meet the Roberts incentives where it is
appropriate. It is probably less true in relation to contract
research staff but even then there are probably ways and means
in determining grades at which people are appointed. With something
like professorial salaries, and I think this is very important
for the development of science and for the attractiveness of this
country for the best scientists, when you see Chairs advertised
there is a professorial minimum salary but there is no maximum.
I think many universities are now paying salaries on what amounts
to quite a wide scale.
Q89 Dr Harris: What is the Department
going to do about the problems of short-term contracts? We did
a report about this and the Roberts Report impacted on that, morale
is very poor, career patterns are bleak, people talk to people
that they are teaching and deter them from going into what is
a mug's game.
Professor Sir Alan Wilson: From
the Department's point of view it has been handled at this stage
through the Funding Council's reward and developing staff policy.
From an individual university's point of view, and again you will
have to forgive me after being six weeks in the job part-time
to fall back on my Leeds experience, what we have been able to
do in Leeds is take a number of steps to have far fewer fixed
term contracts, particularly for people whose main role is teaching.
I think in territory like post-doctoral fellowships it is very,
very difficult to move away. I seek to encourage departments to
function in such a way that they can see themselves as bringing
in continuous streams of income that will support research staff
over much longer periods. Then, of course, the new EU Directive
in two or three years' time will take care of the issue. I think
that the situation, particularly with the EU Directive, with the
initiatives that many universities are taking, partly supported
by the Funding Council are rewarding and developing staff policy
and big improvements are being made. I am not saying that it is
not a problem but big improvements are being made.
Chairman: Sir Alan, we have come to the
end, we got you early in the game before these civil servants
get at you and beat you about the head, you have been very frank
and open and your enthusiasm for the process in higher education
comes through very, very strongly. Thank you very much for coming
today. We look forward to seeing you before too long again.