Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  Q100  Stephen Williams: So the STEM subjects will start in 2010, not 2009, is that right?

  Professor Eastwood: It will be phased in for the funding of STEM subjects from 2010-11 onwards, yes.

  Q101  Stephen Williams: But with the separate metrics exercise for STEM subjects, was that not meant to start in 2009 or are you saying the shadow exercise will give you enough information coupled with the RAE to lead to funding for some of these institutions?

  Professor Eastwood: Once we have built the new model, if we can just stay with STEM for a moment, that model could work with annual data, so one of the questions that we need to have discussions with the sector and other stakeholders on is the frequency with which we run the model. If you assume that the model is going to be run annually on the basis of annually collected data then we would run it in time to inform the funding outcomes in 2010-11.

  Q102  Stephen Williams: We have been led to believe that STEM subjects might have their first review under the new system in 2009 but from what you are saying it might be 2010.

  Professor Eastwood: It would be 2009 data to inform 2010-11 outcomes.

  Q103  Stephen Williams: Are you at all worried about the distorting effect that the RAE itself, the change to the new system, uncertainty about what the new system might be, has on institutions' behaviour? Just like in the Health Service targets distort priorities, some of us might say, do you think this distorts academic priorities?

  Professor Eastwood: Do you mean the existence of an RAE or the perturbations that we have experienced recently?

  Q104  Stephen Williams: Well, both really. Does the RAE itself distort academic priorities and is there a concern that the new system might do the same?

  Professor Eastwood: My own view, going back to 1986, and you have heard me on this before, is that the impact of the RAE has been broadly beneficial, but we acknowledge that we have arrived at a point where the RAE may be over-engineered and there is significant evidence that it does have some unanticipated and unfortunate consequences. I think that is exacerbated because institutions call the RAE in aid, that is to say, "We are doing this because of the RAE", whereas in fact they are doing it for good local institutional reasons but the RAE is a convenient shroud to wave. I think the different methodology that we are adopting for the RAE of 2008 is a response to some of the criticisms made of earlier RAEs, not least the 2001 RAE, and the system of research assessment that we are in the process of developing will, I believe, further diminish the distorting outcomes of RAE whilst preserving the beneficial effects of both research assessment and research funding

  Q105  Stephen Williams: My colleague Gordon Marsden, who is exploding next to me at the moment, was asking about the priority of teaching over research or vice versa earlier. Just to come back to my hypothetical University of Lindisfarne, let us just suppose that the University of Lindisfarne had a poor RAE assessment for theology, which, of course, is a core subject for this university, in the past. In order to get a better one in 2008, if it focused all its staff efforts on the RAE and remodelled its timetable so that the students who are now paying £3,000 fees for their courses felt they were not getting a rum deal, would that not be distorting behaviour, an exercise to inform one set of funding actually distorting another part of a university's activities?

  Professor Eastwood: The example is a delicious one and I am sure Bede would have scored very well in the RAE but, leaving that aside, if this answers your question, in the environment into which we are now moving institutions' understanding of where their funding is coming from is critical; it goes back to my earlier comments on Trac for T, and though institutions will have some flexibility in the way in which they invest their income, an institution which was substantially raiding its teaching income in order to underwrite research which was not otherwise being funded would be an institution, I think, which would struggle to provide the kind of student experience that Lindisfarnians would expect.

  Q106  Stephen Williams: Even if the course was massively over-subscribed normally?

  Professor Eastwood: That is an interesting question about brand and the extent to which brand will be uninfluenced by those issues of quality and investment in teaching, and I suspect they will be important.

  Q107  Stephen Williams: Looking forward to the future, while we were in Australia on our expensively funded trip we met the Chief Scientific Adviser of Australia who was talking about what they move into in Australia and they can have an impact assessment as part of their equivalent of the RAE. We are going to have something called a quality indicator, I think. Is that the same?

  Professor Eastwood: I think it is broadly similar. In terms of the new methodology, we will be looking at, amongst other things, output and their impact, and we will also be seeking to develop impact measures which are appropriate for applied research as well for blue-skies research.

  Q108  Stephen Williams: In terms of the whole basis of funding research on quality, whether it has got an impact assessment or not, is not the danger of that (and some parts of the sector might say it already happens) that it leads to a concentration of government funding in certain institutions and it is very hard for newer universities, whether it is Lindisfarne or elsewhere, to get these vast amounts of money in order to have well-funded departments with the capital equipment they need in order to grow a reputation?

  Professor Eastwood: What is interesting in terms of the distribution of QR, the funding that arises from the RAE, is that if you look at institutional level, 75% is in 25 institutions, but if you look at the distribution of quality it is very wide. There is a large range of institutions that have high quality research within them. The number of institutions that have, as it were, very heavy concentration at five and five-star is, of course, much smaller, but that pattern of distributed excellence which we have supported, and indeed our colleagues in the Research Council have supported, does seem to me to reflect the way in which institutions are able to sustain research even if you would not describe those institution across the piste as research intensive.

  Q109  Mr Chaytor: In the earlier sessions of the Committee that looked at the Bologna Process I think our feeling from the sector was that their view was that it is just a question of time before the foreigners fall into line with the British way of doing things. Is that your view of the Bologna Process?

  Professor Eastwood: I am wondering whether that is a comment that is more widely applicable. The Bologna Process has been an interesting one because it has been a process of, now, 45 signatories, so it is not an EU process and it is not a process which is driven by a strong directorate. It is certainly true to say that there has been more re-engineering of HE systems in part of Europe as a result of Bologna than there has been within the UK, so to that extent in a number of rather important areas things that have mattered to UK and English higher education—the three-year degree, the one-year masters—have been things which the Bologna Process has recognised. Our emphasis not on time served but on outcomes has also been one that I think has increasingly resonated within the Bologna Process. In terms of the mutual recognition of qualifications in terms of mobility, I think Bologna has had a positive impact. That is not to say that it is simply one-way traffic and I think it would be naïve to assume that a process involving 45 would involve 44 walking in lock step with the other one.

  Q110  Mr Chaytor: But are there specific issues or examples of good practice elsewhere in European universities that you think the British HE sector could learn from? Is there anything you would like to see us adopt that we do not currently do?

  Professor Eastwood: I think if—and this is using Bologna to some extent for other purposes—we can encourage somewhat greater student mobility, if we can encourage students to study, as it were, outside the Anglophone world, I think the consequences of that both for individual students and indeed for our culture more generally can only be very positive.

  Q111  Mr Chaytor: And is there a role for HEFCE in stimulating that greater mobility of UK students?

  Professor Eastwood: Certainly we have run a number of programmes which have been designed to try to look at the barriers to that, and I am afraid most of this is fairly banal: the barriers are around linguistic confidence as much as linguistic competence, and we would certainly encourage flexibility in order to achieve greater student mobility.

  Q112  Mr Chaytor: Is there a tension in the whole Bologna Process between the driver to greater standardisation and transferability and the need that you have identified within the UK to encourage greater diversity and differentiation between individual universities?

  Professor Eastwood: There are points when those two priorities rub up against one another and there is a danger, of course, that in an environment where HE is global, if we are not careful Bologna means that we just look at Europe whereas we need the kind of flexibility to compete with the US, to compete with Australia, and we also need the kind of flexibility that will enable us to remain a major provider of higher education opportunities, not just to countries in the Far East but also to India, to countries in the Middle East, and in due course, one hopes, to African countries as well. The kind of flexibility and quality that UK HE is perceived as offering will be critical to our ability to operate in that market and we are a significantly larger player in that international market than most of the other Bologna signatories.

  Q113  Mr Chaytor: So do you think the UK brand will come out stronger from the Bologna Process or do you think the UK brand is threatened by Bologna and by the rapid growth of HE in India and China?

  Professor Eastwood: Providing we retain this emphasis on quality which I was talking about earlier in my comments, then no, I think the UK brand will continue to prosper. We cannot compete on price, as I have said, unless there is a government which is going to devalue the pound, and that would be painful for other reasons, so we must compete on quality.

  Q114  Mr Chaytor: On the quality issue, just going back to our earlier discussion before I had to leave the Committee, is there any evidence that the introduction of variable fees has led students to be more discriminating on quality and, even though the drop-out rate in British higher education is amongst the best in the world, is there any evidence that students are leaving their courses because they are dissatisfied with the quality of teaching or the level of individual support and personal tuition?

  Professor Eastwood: If by the impact of fees we are talking about post-2006, I think it is too early to say.

  Q115  Mr Chaytor: The fees have been in for a number of years. Does the emergence of a market indicate that students are beginning to act as consumers in the market rather than as passive recipients of what is offered to them?

  Professor Eastwood: There was a lot of speculation in the run-up to 2006 as to whether or not the new fee regime would impact differentially on particular subjects, would there be a flight towards subjects which were vocational subjects, where there was what you might describe as easy employability, and we have not seen that. I think students do make discriminating choices but they make quite complex choices and they are choices not just around career aspiration and institutional preference; they are also choices around intellectual stimulation and in a large number of students' cases they are also choices which are constrained by their own individual circumstances which mean that they can only study in a particular range of institutions. I think we are seeing students being discriminating but, as I say, it is a complex picture that we are seeing.

  Q116  Mr Chaytor: But, specifically on this question of quality of teaching and tutorial support, are students becoming more assertive in respect of any dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching?

  Professor Eastwood: There is some evidence that some of that is beginning to take place but, as the National Student Survey suggests, in the round students remain broadly very satisfied with the nature and quality of their student experience, and I think where we are beginning to see that assertiveness there is quite swift institutional response.

  Q117  Mr Carswell: On the subject of Bologna, why do we need Bologna? Surely the implication of it is that not only can the UK not run its own universities but, more serious than that, our universities cannot run themselves? We hear this argument about portability, mobility. A good degree surely speaks for itself. Top MBAs, or even not such top MBAs, are recognised and accepted around the world. As far as I am aware there is no Bologna Process for MBAs. Please explain to me specifically why we need technocrats in higher education to achieve portability. In fact, Bologna has not resulted in more mobility, I put it to you, because there are other far more important factors to do with labour mobility that explain portability. Please can you explain to me how Bologna actually achieves the central justification for it: portability? I just do not get it.

  Professor Eastwood: In order to understand the Bologna Process one in part has to understand certain counter-factuals, and one of the counter-factuals here would be a different kind of process which was a process of greater imposition of standardisation within the European Union. I think the Bologna Process has been a very interesting example of the way in which higher education sectors have chosen to come together, pool their experience and as a result of that head off some of the issues which we might have seen in terms of the reputation acceptability of certain kinds of qualification, so in that sense, granted that that is a counter-factual, I think there is a positive story that one can tell around the Bologna Process.

  Q118  Chairman: Professor Eastwood, in what you have said today, and we very much value your contributions, and we have tried to provoke you, you have remained very calm and you have kept to your own territory. If you had a conversation with Lord Dearing, as we will, would you say to him, "Your idea of a 10-year review is not really necessary because basically the 20-year trajectory is on course"?

  Professor Eastwood: I think if we did not have the 2009 review in prospect and if we had not had the 2003 White Paper and the 2004 legislation then Lord Dearing would have been absolutely right that now we would have needed a further impetus to the process. I think we have had those developments and we have had those periods where there has been a very intense discussion around the role of higher education and the funding of higher education, and we have in prospect a very significant reflection and review of that in 2009. I will listen attentively to what Ron says when you speak with him but I think it would be perfectly reasonable for Ron to conclude that in the current context the sorts of investigations and conversations that your Committee is having are an admirable way of taking stock and an admirable way of preparing for the review that we are promised in 2009.

  Q119  Chairman: I can understand that you do not want to venture onto other people's territory and I wanted at one stage to ask you whether you think there should be a post-16 funding council for all education and if you had ambitions to be chief executive of that, but what I really want to ask you is this. There are signs that the Government is getting more centralist in its attitude to higher education. If that manifested itself in a way that was damaging to UK higher education have you got the grit and the resolve to stand up and bang the desk in the Secretary of State's office and tell him he is wrong?

  Professor Eastwood: My career has been a career in higher education and the one thing I am passionate about is higher education and universities and the attraction, when I was asked to do this job, of doing this job was to play a role in the further enhancement and enrichment of English higher education, so I will do everything in my power to ensure that I play my full role in that.

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