Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

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 past—forgive 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 situations—and I keep coming back to your original question on evidence-based policy—is 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 situation.

  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 answer—I call it the West Oxford question—a university like Oxford does not get enough people from poorer backgrounds applying—this is Oxford England, not Oxford Australia, let us deal with where we are here—and 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.

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