Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  Q60  Mr Pelling: So Sir Howard then was not able to achieve that?

  Professor Eastwood: When you are looking at universities and institutions which have a planning horizon of tomorrow, the next year, the next five years or the next 40 years, what we are talking about here is something that is medium range. I cannot speak for Howard but I would be surprised if he thought it was something that would be accomplished in two, three or four years.

  Q61  Mr Pelling: Does the funding model discourage diversity?

  Professor Eastwood: I do not think it does particularly discourage diversity, no. I think what it does is put the onus on institutions' management and governors to chart the course for that university with vigour and confidence, and if they succeed our funding model will reward them irrespective of the mission of the university.

  Q62  Mr Pelling: Do you share that vision that Sir Howard had?

  Professor Eastwood: I do not speak in the tongues of rims and hubs and spokes, so my metaphors might be different, but yes, I think that that vision (and you rightly quoted Dearing), which is not a vision that was in any sense particular to Howard, is one that universities increasingly understand. The complication has been, and it goes back to something Mr Marsden was mentioning earlier, a sense that perhaps research was disproportionately important in determining universities' reputations. My own view is that post-2006 we are increasingly moving into an environment where teaching quality and the student experience will be as important in establishing university reputation. If there was a distortion there I think it is in the process of righting itself.

  Q63  Mr Pelling: So HEFCE is now meant to be shaping the sector? Is that the role?

  Professor Eastwood: We work with institutions and with the sector to find an appropriate shape and size for the sector. We do not plan the sector and we have always said, and I think if you were talking to colleagues from Universities UK they would share this view, that the sector works better with this kind of dynamism between autonomous institutions and enlightened public funders.

  Q64  Mr Pelling: So who is it that should have the vision then?

  Professor Eastwood: I think that has to be a shared endeavour. I think that where institutions have unrealistic aspirations we would in one way or another work quietly with them to see if we could not remodel those aspirations. More usually what we find is that some strategic funding from us can facilitate institutions focusing their endeavours in areas of quality and excellence.

  Q65  Mr Pelling: So what is the emerging shared vision?

  Professor Eastwood: Of the sector as a whole?

  Q66  Mr Pelling: Yes.

  Professor Eastwood: I think it is a vision of a sector which has to be and remain internationally competitive, a sector which needs to be responsive to developing priorities, be they local, national or international, and increasingly institutions which are comfortable with their mission, so in the case of some institutions that is clearly a local and regional mission, and in the case of others it is clearly as a global institution. There will always be institutions which are moving within this kind of firmament. We would expect to see that; the dynamism of the sector would be dependent on that. The one thing we would not want to see is a sector which was set in aspic where no institution could have ambition, no institution could have aspiration and no institution could transform its role.

  Q67  Mr Pelling: So, using the corporate "you", if I can call it that, your job is just to referee the different aspirations of the different institutions?

  Professor Eastwood: No. I think our job is also to work with institutions and to provide not just core funding but also strategic funding as appropriate, to be a facilitator, and also I think we have a role—I think I have a role—in interpreting what you might regard as the broad parameters within which English higher education is operating. Some of those are fairly hard-nosed realities and there is no point in being anything other than direct about that.

  Q68  Chairman: What do you think about pre-1992 when Ken Clarke was Education Secretary and polytechnics disappeared? If your role and HEFCE's role is about giving shape, when we took the Committee fairly recently to Dublin and looked at their polytechnic sector, which is still there, what they could show us and what they were very proud of was the fact that they are still training technicians to a very high level. Somebody might put to you, and I am going to put it to you, that employers here say they cannot get technicians for love nor money because with the change to all polytechnics becoming universities no-one sees that as their role. Is this perhaps behind the Government's sudden decision to allow foundation degrees to flourish and FE colleges to award degrees? Would you agree, Professor Eastwood, that there is a gap there and why was it that employers could say over a period of time that that kind of technician level, high quality people who would have a range of qualifications, is not provided for in this country in the way it is still in the Republic of Ireland?

  Professor Eastwood: I think we might have found them saying that before 1992 as well. I think our response to that though would be that if you look at what has happened since 1992 there are a number of professions which were non-degree professions which have become degree professions and most of those professions, a lot of them in the public sector, would say that they were better for doing that. We have seen the development, and very successful development it should be said, of new qualifications such as the foundation degree, which have some of those characteristics within them—62,000 foundation programmes now and that number is rising. Within Lifelong Learning Networks again we are trying to create pathways which are appropriate for young people in particular to follow which will enable them to develop their skills in the most appropriate ways, and certainly, both as a funding council and within institutions in the sector, we are working around the development of the new diplomas to ensure that that is a high quality pathway which may lead directly into work or into appropriate HE programmes for the kinds of young people who come through. I think there are challenges here but there is a range of initiatives which either are in place or are coming on stream which will enable us to address that challenge.

  Q69  Mr Carswell: I understand that HEFCE undertook a review of its policy on funding and supporting higher education in further education colleges. Is HEFCE's policy on funding and supporting higher education in further education colleges restricting growth?

  Professor Eastwood: Could I just say that we are in the middle of a consultation on higher education and further education. It is about 8%, as you know, of higher education which is delivered through further education colleges. I think for us we are asking some open and quite searching questions and what we want to do is ensure that higher education and further education are strategic to the institution which is delivering them.

  Q70  Mr Carswell: Sorry; I do not understand what that means.

  Professor Eastwood: We want to ensure that the further education institutions which are delivering higher education are committed to it on a stable basis and they are working in appropriate partnership with a higher education institution or institutions. That is why in the consultation we are inviting both further education colleges that provide higher education and the validating higher education institutions to consider whether or not they should come forward with plans which would give us that sort of stability and a framework into which we could then invest.

  Q71  Mr Carswell: You say it is out to consultation but do you want to see growth in the provision of higher education in further education colleges?

  Professor Eastwood: If we are to continue to make progress in terms of the expansion of higher education opportunities it will be important. I think there are kinds of higher education which are very appropriately delivered in further education colleges, and there are also parts of the country where the kind of distributed provision that we need to have in place does mean that we need precisely these kinds of partnerships between higher and further education, so yes, I think we would see higher education delivered through further education colleges continuing to expand, just as we hope that higher education in higher education institutions will continue to expand.

  Q72  Mr Carswell: I gather that in April 2006 there were some conclusions put to your policy board, is that right?

  Professor Eastwood: To the HEFCE board, yes.

  Q73  Mr Carswell: What were the conclusions of the review that were reported?

  Professor Eastwood: That is really what is informing the current consultation. There are issues around the capital funding of higher education and further education colleges. There are issues about ensuring that progression is appropriate. We think that that is largely being achieved through Lifelong Learning Networks but we need to establish that. We are also looking particularly at areas of very small-scale provision of higher education and further education colleges. Some of that is very appropriate either because of issues of geography or because of issues of specialisation, but again we want to ensure that that is stable in the medium term.

  Q74  Mr Pelling: In terms of this blurring of the edges is there a gold standard in the HE sector which is under threat by these changes?

  Professor Eastwood: All the evidence that we have had hitherto is that through a period of very considerable change and development quality has been maintained, evaluated in terms of what the Quality Assurance Agency has been saying about quality, and evaluated in terms of the National Student Survey, which we were talking about earlier, looking at it in terms of retention rates and graduation rates, so I think English higher education has a very strong story to tell around quality and fitness for purpose.

  Chairman: I want to apologise to you. Professor Eastwood, because people are moving in and out of the Committee. It is not meant as a discourtesy to you. The Whips here from both parties put people on Standing Committees where they have to go. I think they are always trying to undermine the power of Parliament rather than the Executive, but never mind; both Members are now back. Can we move on to something that is of great interest to the Committee, as all these items are, but we have been lobbied pretty hard on this, and that is part-time students.

  Q75  Helen Jones: Professor, you will remember that during the passage of the Higher Education Bill the Government gave assurances that institutions, basically two, Birkbeck and the OU, that taught all part-time students would not be disadvantaged in any way. Why have we still not managed to arrive at a settlement which is acceptable to those institutions and which protects their position, because you spoke earlier about the need to encourage lifelong learning and these are precisely the kinds of institution that are very good at delivering lifelong learning, are they not?

  Professor Eastwood: I think we have made some progress. That is not to say that we have done everything that needs to be done but we have made some progress in terms of the premium of part-time. We have made progress in terms of the £40 million that we have committed to widening participation through part-time and the £55 million we have committed to enhancing retention of part-time students. We have taken some measures, and I believe those measures have been welcomed by the institutions you refer to, though, of course, there are many other institutions that have very substantial numbers of part-time students. We are in detailed discussions with those two institutions about their own missions and funding and I am due to visit both of them in the very near future, so I would not like to anticipate those outcomes beyond saying that both institutions also have other important roles which we are working with them to refine. If you take the Open University, it has a very important role in the provision of strategic and vulnerable subjects and will be a significant beneficiary from a number of the measures that we are taking in that area.

  Q76  Helen Jones: Can we have a look at that, because I think there is a 10% premium, am I right, for those students?

  Professor Eastwood: That is correct.

  Q77  Helen Jones: If we look at what happens to the fees, most institutions now are charging full-time students the full £3,000, but Universities UK says the optimum fee for part-time is £600 and I think Birkbeck charges just over £1,125, because that seems to be all that the market will bear in part-time. Is there a case then either for a higher premium for these institutions or for changing the support available to part-time students so that they can raise their fees? Have you had discussions on that?

  Professor Eastwood: We are monitoring the trend data very carefully on what is happening to part-time students under the new fee regime. You mentioned the issue of what the market will bear. We are in the process of discovering what that might be, so if you put those two things together we will arrive at a point where we do know what the market will bear and we know the point at which demand for part-time programmes will turn down.

  Q78  Helen Jones: But it is a question of market for whom, is it not? The Government's answer is that employers fund part-time fees but that is only for 40% of the students, is it not?

  Professor Eastwood: Yes.

  Q79  Helen Jones: Are we not risking, in simply saying it is what the market will bear, excluding many of those that we would most like to get into higher education simply because the grants are not available to them, the support generally is not available to them, in the way it is available to full-time students?

  Professor Eastwood: First, as I say, we are keeping that situation closely under review. Secondly, there was an announcement in 2005 of a move towards some enhancement of the support available to part-time students from poorer backgrounds. The third thing to say is that for the Department and for us the support available to part-time students is something which remains a matter which is under review and under consideration.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 9 August 2007