Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 640 - 659)



  Q640  Mr Pelling: Thank you very much, Chairman, for allowing me to be extemporary and off the beaten track of the questions, and also to say my daughter is studying currently at a university in Japan, so I think she is part of these flows of people backwards and forwards. I was very taken by the figure of the 72% of foreign nationals you said are doing finance research, positions, as it were, within our education. It is very concerning, I would say, that when finance is such a big part of the UK economy these days such a small percentage of UK students is taking up those places. Are they at some kind of disadvantage, in terms of taking up those places; is there something that employers should be doing to encourage more UK citizens to be pursuing the route to finance through taking up research positions? Is it something currently that is wrong with us that it is such a small percentage? It strikes me that if employers were to put a very strong emphasis, as I suspect they do in the City, in terms of taking people away who are very highly qualified, the City of London would become even more international in its approach and the opportunities for UK students to take advantage of that very strong, wealth-creating part of the economy will be further lost?

  Mr Davidson: One always has to treat such statistics with a degree of care, because what we do not know is the number of new courses which have been started because of the students wanting to come here to study; in some sense, a very obvious place for people to come and study finance is the UK. It may well be actually that the capacity and opportunity for British students has expanded because of the flow of foreign students into there. I do not know the answer to that. What is clear, it seems to me, is that the opportunity for British students, by studying here, being given an international experience simply because of the flow of students in and out is very, very important. If they are not going to go and study elsewhere then they have got to get that experience somewhere if they are going to be competitive within the broader world. I agree absolutely with the issue around language though. While, of course, it is true that English language is a competitive advantage for British students, being monolingual is a huge disadvantage and there is very sound research which indicates the sheer disadvantage which students are suffering now from not being able to speak more than one language. That is equally true in finance. Again, I do not have the numbers to hand, but you just have to look at the numbers of foreign graduates now working within the City; what advantage are they bringing, it is a broader international perspective, a broader cultural perspective and a wider range of language as well as other competence that they bring in, and our students have got to be able to match that.

  Professor Brown: It is the language of money which is the problem. Basically what happens is, after you have done your degree for three years, you have gone to a good university, you get snapped up by City firms offering you large amounts of money, so why would you bother going on to do a Master's degree or research in that field; you would not, so you go overseas to recruit in. I think that is the primary problem. If the City were not so buoyant you would get more people going into the research area.

  Q641  Mr Marsden: Some of the things that we have just heard might render this question a little bit narrow-minded or redundant, but we have had an enormous amount of discussion, as witnesses will be aware, and this Committee has just done a major inquiry into the whole issue of citizenship education and in that we touched very briefly on citizenship education in universities. If we are talking about the ambassador role, however changed it is, do British universities need to be looking more specifically at how they communicate some of the values of British society in their courses? I do not mean a sort of "These are the top 10 British values that you might all want to come and imbibe during your three years in Britain." I am talking about slightly broader issues, relating back to one of the things that we talked about earlier, in terms of academic inquiry. Martin, I do not know whether you would like to comment on that initially, and perhaps Bernadette, from your experience?

  Mr Davidson: I suppose my starting-point would be that values almost inevitably inform the nature of the study, the nature of the course, the way in which you both create and then run courses, so somehow distinguishing yourself as an institution from the values which inform your society, which go into your make-up, seems to me to be probably a false premise.

  Q642  Mr Marsden: It is a bit like passive smoking, when you are forced to imbibe it by the nature of the forces there?

  Mr Davidson: I think there is an aspect which may be allowed.

  Q643  Mr Marsden: Perhaps that was not the right allusion, but you know what I mean?

  Mr Davidson: Perhaps not the right one. I guess the question which worries me more is the extent to which the financial imperatives of bringing in more and more students may drive institutions into poor practices, weaker recruitment standards, weaker academic standards, and I think this is an issue which a lot of institutions are very aware of, the need to maintain those standards. In essence, in a globally competitive market, it is about institutions hanging together, because if you do not hang together you hang separately.

  Q644  Mr Marsden: Bernadette, is it Britishness, however nebulously defined, which has an attraction for students who come here, or is it simply the hard nuts and bolts of the way in which they get qualifications?

  Professor Robinson: I think utilitarian values rate very high in the decisions students make to come here; they see it as a route to a good job, and I think that is the primary value. However, I think when they are here the areas where maybe some of the biggest changes take place, I would not call those things directly British, but things like arguments which are based on evidence, learning to use arguments which are based on evidence rather than ideology, learning to examine a problem from different perspectives instead of making assumptions about the nature of a problem, I think these are some of the big changes that take place for students.

  Q645  Mr Marsden: Challenging academics? I was always very struck when, in my previous incarnation, I used to deal with German academics, German historians; whenever they stood up and delivered a paper you had to wait for about four paragraphs of indebtedness to their professors over the past 30 years before you got to the argument, whereas British academics tend to tear apart their supervisor in the first paragraph. Is that an aspect of this as well?

  Professor Robinson: Yes. I do not know if John remembers a famous Open University course, which was produced, called `That is Europe'. Each part of the course was written by a team from a different European country, and the discourse conventions were so different it was almost impossible to produce a coherent course, and the preamble from some countries was so long there was no time left for actually developing an argument. I think the nature of discourse and argument is different and people can learn different conventions and learn to understand the assumptions behind their own conventions, in doing this. I think this is one of the values of intercultural groups.

  Q646  Chairman: Why should it be, listening to some of the things that you, not just you, Bernadette, but that some of you were saying, it seems always that we are hell bent on a different kind of university ethos. It is all about being, okay, better linguists, better competitors, adding more value, being able to earn more money perhaps. I always tell the story about walking across the hallowed turf of one of the most prestigious Oxford Colleges and asking the Master whether any of his students actually went into teaching, and he said, "No, no; they all go into the City." I did wonder why we were educating those people to a high level just to go into the City. Is not there a kind of rat race you are describing that we should be part of, is it not encouraged by university students coming from overseas? Bernadette says, "It's only about because they want to get a better job and earn more money;" is not that actually getting away from some of the values that we thought higher education was about? Is it not about other things? Should not there be something in a university which says something like giving back to the society which produced it, says something about going to be a town planner or a social worker; not going to the City of London? Is not that all disappearing because of this thing you seem to applaud, Phillip?

  Professor Brown: I certainly do not applaud it and I know it is a huge problem for us, but what I am saying is that we have to begin to understand the problem properly and I do not think we have spent enough time understanding what the issues really are. This issue of people going to the City and not using their knowledge, it is going back to the public good kind of argument, is it not, about the university? The thing is that the labour market has become so competitive that many people seem to be in higher education primarily as acquisitors. Basically, they want a credential and they want to get a credential that will give them as much value as possible within that job market, and they will trade for whatever they can get. That is a reflection of our broader culture. It is no good us just blaming the universities for all of this, it reflects the society in which we live. We are so driven by materialism in this kind of sense that we have forgotten these broader kinds of values that we have. The students themselves, I think, have a problem, and it is this: how do you behave in an alternative way; what are the alternatives? If there is this positional competition then not to play it means you have no chance of getting a decent career or a decent job, you could argue; maybe you still might be able to get into teaching, or something. I said it as a joke, of course. There are many areas, when you are talking about the upper end, where they believe there is competition and which they have to be part of. For example, with our own children, what advice do you give them these days; what do you say, "Don't worry about that kind of positional competition, about getting A-stars at A level, it doesn't really matter, because what we want you to be is a really good human being and we want you to contribute to society"? That is a problem that we have got.

  Chairman: There is a difference between going into certain professions and with all the wonderful jobs in local government, town planning, in the Arts Council, let alone the British Council, all sorts of jobs that people do which add value and achieve wonderful things.

  Q647  Mr Pelling: Some people get a lot of money?

  Professor Brown: These are very important jobs and we should encourage more people to do them; but in terms of describing my understanding of what I think is going on then I think there is a broader problem.

  Professor Brennan: May I give some counter-data, to follow up, this is based on two large surveys of UK graduates three or four years after they had been in higher education. This was a question they were asked about what benefits they felt they had got from higher education. Round about 50% of them thought they had got a very good job, soon after higher education. This was much lower than the European average. However, 60-odd, 70% felt that their long-term career prospects had been enhanced, but nearly 90% reckoned that they had developed personally, as individuals, the personal development and change from their higher education experience had been extremely high. That was perceived to be the biggest impact and one that they valued most, and, in fact, one where actually the UK graduates were reporting probably amongst the highest in these international studies. I think that we do have to be careful not necessarily to impute values to students, and whilst I think there is quite a lot of research around which is saying that today's students are very instrumental, I do not think necessarily that precludes attaching a lot of importance to a lot of other values as well. One of the things, while I am speaking, I might just mention, because it is coming back to, I think, the Britishness and the citizenship, is the social and cultural elements of the student experience and I think others have mentioned the international nature of this. I would remark though that I think on some campuses the only students who are around to have a social and cultural experience are the international ones, because all the home students are busily working down at the supermarket to pay their fees. I think the extent to which the student experience is changing now is another aspect we have to take account of.

  Chairman: David, who has been extremely patient, will take us on to our last section, on mobility.

  Q648  Mr Chaytor: Can I pursue this question of the apparently limited interest of UK students in studying abroad and ask specifically what are Cardiff University and Nottingham University doing about this? If we assume it is a good thing that the HE experience is internationalised, is there positive action from Cardiff and Nottingham?

  Professor Brown: I think Nottingham seems to be very good at it and I think we are really bad at it. We do not have a lot of overseas students. I think it is about 10, 12%, and I am not sure we want to increase that.

  Q649  Chairman: You have a lot of English people?

  Professor Brown: We have a lot of English people in Cardiff, that is right, we do have, from the South East particularly. I think there is a big issue about how we address that international marketplace and I think now we are trying to do this.

  Q650  Mr Chaytor: I am sorry, maybe we are talking at cross-purposes. I am looking at the question of British students studying abroad?

  Professor Brown: I am sorry; it is round the other way. It is part of their experience. I cannot talk about the University generally but I can talk about our School, which is that we are desperately trying to go out there and sign agreements with other, and this is quite important, of course, in terms of understanding this discussion, what we would regard as leading universities elsewhere for the exchange of students. We have the same problem as everybody else, which is that students come to us from overseas but getting our students to go overseas is a problem, and I think it goes back to John's point.

  Q651  Mr Chaytor: What is the problem for your students; what is the root cause of this?

  Professor Brown: I think part of the problem is the three-year degree, that it does not give them much time.

  Q652  Mr Chaytor: They have got three summer vacations to get off their backsides and go and visit some interesting European places?

  Professor Brown: You can do that, but, of course, if you have got student fees to pay . . .

  Q653  Mr Chaytor: Which they do not have to now, because it is deferred?

  Professor Brown: They have still got to live, and I think they are in debt over time.

  Q654  Mr Chaytor: They have loans to help them live?

  Professor Brown: Most students have big problems, which is why they are working during their university studies to try to keep going during their three years. If you say, "Okay, we're going to extend it to four years, because we think it's a really good idea for you to go off somewhere else," I think it is a really good idea. I think virtually everybody should have overseas experience, or at least some kind of sandwich element, with a degree, but actually implementing that is extremely difficult, and there is the language issue, that unless it is the US or Australia, or somewhere, they have not got the language skills to be able to take up the opportunity.

  Q655  Mr Chaytor: The language problem is historic and that is not going to be changed overnight until the changes in the primary curriculum filter through in 10 years or more. On the other issue, the financial issue, is there a stream of funding within Cardiff University which is set aside to support students going abroad?

  Professor Brown: No, we have not got the resources to do that; maybe we could give them £50, or something. It is not going to help; it is a really big problem, I think.

  Q656  Chairman: Why is not the British Council helping?

  Mr Davidson: The Erasmus scheme, of course, we do administer now, and the Erasmus scheme does provide assistance.

  Q657  Mr Chaytor: How many students a year go abroad with Erasmus?

  Mr Davidson: Seven thousand; that was in 2005, I think, which is the latest figure.

  Q658  Mr Chaytor: Do you have any figures, Martin, of the total number of UK students going abroad as part of their course, or would anybody have those figures?

  Mr Davidson: I am not aware of any; whatever it is is anecdotal. What we are seeing is a decline. We have got figures on declining numbers of students taking up Erasmus places, so it has dropped from 12,000 to 7,000 in 10 years.

  Q659  Mr Chaytor: Is that a reduction in the overall programme?

  Mr Davidson: No, that is a reduction in British student take-up.

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