Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 660 - 678)



  Q660  Mr Chaytor: So there are vacancies on the Erasmus programme?

  Mr Davidson: There are vacancies available and money not spent on it. On taking over the programme, we have taken on a commitment to increase it to 43,000 students by 2012, which does not fill me with enthusiasm, I have to say; but the barriers are real. We did some research in 2003 with HEFCE and the barriers were language, finance and credit transfer. Language we have mentioned already, the finance has been mentioned and the other issue is the universities' preparedness to accept credit transfer from experience elsewhere, and, to date, the universities have shown themselves remarkably reluctant to accept credit transfer.

  Q661  Chairman: Was not Burgess involved? On the one hand, we have had credit transfer with Burgess looking at it, is not there a Burgess report, domestically, in the UK universities? On the other hand, we have got the Bologna Process; has not that helped at all, that this may be a lesson? You have got rid of some of the Chevening scholarships, have you not; they have declined in number?

  Mr Davidson: I am sorry, but Chevening is inward rather than outward.

  Q662  Chairman: There is only one way?

  Mr Davidson: Yes. On Erasmus; this is about average flow. They are two-way but each nation has an Erasmus agent who manages the flow out from their country into other countries. The flow into the UK, on Erasmus, is about double the outward flow, but that is administered by the national agencies.

  Q663  Mr Chaytor: Can I ask Bernadette about Nottingham. Does the existence of your campus in China have any advantage for home students in Nottingham?

  Professor Robinson: It does, but, as I said, I am not here to speak on behalf of Nottingham, but I can get that information and send it, about the mobility of students. I think Nottingham is fairly active; how successful it is I would not be able to say, in terms of numbers.

  Q664  Mr Chaytor: Could I ask again, the growth of the decision by some European universities to offer degree programmes taught in English presumably is directed at Asian students to divert them from the UK, but is this likely to have an advantage for UK students, in encouraging them to study in Europe, or is that just not an issue at all? Is it in any way going to be attractive for UK students to, say, take a degree in English in The Netherlands or Germany as against here?

  Professor Brennan: My perception is that this is something which is happening predominantly at the postgraduate level and the take-up at postgraduate level of UK students is still relatively low compared with the European norm. If we did see a movement and a growth at the taught Master's level, in other words, Stage 2 Bologna, that could be, arguably, the point at which this sort of mobility could start taking off, in the sense that the provision is certainly growing, as you say, in quite a lot of European countries, although again there is still this, I think, central problem which has already been referred to: is the Master's stage a one-year or a two-year programme?

  Q665  Mr Chaytor: Does this have any impact; the question of the need to internationalise the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, does it have any impact on the one-year Master's problem, because if there is a concern that the one-year UK Master's is under threat because of the Bologna Process, would not building onto that some international component deal with this problem of credits and transfer? Has anyone examined that?

  Professor Brennan: I do not know. My view is that there are question-marks about the sustainability of one-year Master's courses in the long run, and that would be quite an interesting way of extending it.

  Q666  Mr Chaytor: Could I pursue with Martin the question of credit transfer, the transferability of the credits. Do you think that the way to improve the situation is largely through bilateral arrangements between individual universities, or do you think it can only be improved with top-down initiatives from government?

  Mr Davidson: I think that the scale of the problem is such that probably it needs a multifaceted approach across the board. Certainly it is the case that individual universities, I think, need to do more to encourage student flows. The whole of the recruitment process when students actually go into university, the opportunity needs to be part of their consideration. I think that we need to begin to build in school, at sixth form level, a further exploration of opportunities through mobility. I think also it does require a greater top-down approach, which clearly indicates the advantage which this sort of mobility programme can deliver. I think it is quite important to recognise that the existing students, those 7,000 under Erasmus, which are the ones that we have data for, are almost exclusively from pre-1992 universities, in other words, the old research universities, and they are very, very predominantly from a small ethnic section, in other words, white, middle-class students, who are taking it up. There is virtually no ethnic minority take-up of the opportunity, there is very limited take-up from the new universities, and all that, I think, does indicate some potentially quite important social issues about the mobility of British students as well.

  Q667  Mr Chaytor: Erasmus provides financial support to students who go abroad?

  Mr Davidson: It does, yes.

  Q668  Mr Chaytor: The blockage here may be to do with language but it is not necessarily to do with financial support; but is it not an issue for the British Council in terms of marketing of the Erasmus programme if the take-up is confined largely to pre-1992 universities?

  Mr Davidson: It is. I would say, in defence of my institution, we took over the marketing only in January so we have got a bit of a way to go yet; but, yes, there is an issue about marketing. There is also a slight tendency to blame the students for not wanting to go overseas. I think we have to start from the point that students make pretty coherent decisions about where their future best lies, and if it is not to have an overseas experience at the undergraduate level then I think we ought to be asking the question why it is not of value to them.

  Q669  Chairman: Where is the leadership in the sector? Where would you expect the leadership to come from in the sector?

  Mr Davidson: I think the leadership is going to have to come from two areas. Clearly, there is a responsibility on my own organisation; if we believe in international mobility, which we do, then we have got to start doing much more to publicise it. I think the institutions themselves have got to start seeing value in that and that means accepting the value of the overseas experience. Whether or not it is a university experience or some other experience, work attachment, for example, a number of universities are beginning to look at that as an opportunity as well, which might take up the issue about being able to do something during long summer vacations, etc. Also I think there is an issue for government, at the centre, also to start demonstrating the value which is attached to this sort of experience for students.

  Q670  Mr Chaytor: Is Erasmus the only programme that would provide financial support for students to study abroad as part of an undergraduate degree?

  Mr Davidson: As far as I am aware, it is the only coherent programme. Individual institutions may have their individual programmes. There are other European mobility programmes at different levels but not at the undergraduate level.

  Q671  Mr Chaytor: Erasmus is for an academic year only?

  Mr Davidson: It is for a variety of different periods; they are small periods of time.

  Q672  Chairman: You can go for a month or a term?

  Mr Davidson: Yes. You can go for a year, if it is appropriate, yes.

  Q673  Chairman: John, why has not the Open University rallied the troops on this and said "This is all disgraceful; the carbon footprint of all this international travel for study is awful"? Could not a lot of this be done by distance learning? Research, I think we were getting there, but having a relative who is an academic, a young academic, describing how in a short time, 10 years, the nature of the research has been transformed by the accessibility, you do not have to go to the wonderful institutions with great libraries any longer, you can actually sit at your PC and get the original documentation on your PC, so is not collaboration worldwide, in terms of research, so much more possible? That is the future, is it not; is it, Phil, is it, John?

  Professor Brennan: As with other colleagues, I could not speak particularly for my University. Essentially, I think I would agree with the proposition that the possibilities of international contacts, exchanges, via the Internet, without leaving home, are huge, including the Open University is doing a lot, it has a huge number of international students and, of course, there are all sorts of potential mixed-mode experiences. We are talking about a time of a year abroad; if you can link a period abroad with some kind of e-learning experience which is internationalised, simply being abroad for a week actually might do it. I think that technology gives us a lot of new models.

  Chairman: Someone going back to brush up their rather poor French and seeing the quality of the technology you can have to help you learn, on your own, I am just amazed how the world has changed. Should we not have a new University of Sangatte, not very far away, intensively teaching language to English students who have not learned any languages yet?

  Mr Pelling: Some people might think that Sangatte is too close.

  Q674  Chairman: The world has changed. What is the British Council doing to lobby, to turn this around, and say, "We could actually do something about the proficiency in languages in this country"? I go to your places in foreign countries and it is wonderful, you have got micro universities there, teaching people to learn English. You have all those techniques, why do you not turn them round, on this country; you are not allowed to?

  Mr Davidson: Probably one or two people would object a little bit if we did. I think that what we are doing really is looking at how we can use IT techniques, virtual learning techniques, to widen the opportunity for students, both in this country and in others, principally, I have to say, at the school level rather than at university; but the sheer number of school links and other links which are now taking place, across multiple countries, is enormous and something which I think we should continue to grow.

  Q675  Chairman: The OU was restricted on foreign language teaching, was it not, at one stage?

  Professor Brennan: I am not sure; we do it now, certainly.

  Q676  Chairman: Do you? I thought, in the beginning, you were frightened that you would be seen as unfair competition with the private sector: no?

  Professor Brennan: I am sorry, I am not aware of that.

  Q677  Chairman: We have come to the end of our session. Is there anything you have not been asked or would like to say before we close this session: what have we missed?

  Professor Brown: There is just one thing, and thank you for giving the opportunity to broaden out the range of things that we have discussed, it has been very helpful, for me anyway, at least I have been able to say what I wanted to say, which is good. There is one additional comment I would like to make. We have not talked at all about differences in the graduate experience within the UK. One of the things which struck us very much from our research is the ways in which these leading companies, you would think that their big issue would be the wealth of talent, so if you look at the massive expansion of higher education around the world, that is their big concern, what are they going to do with all this talent, yet do they talk about that; no, they talk about the `war for talent'. In other words, what they talk about is "how we recruit the right people for our organisations." Very often we are talking then about the top universities, no longer just in the UK but globally. They are internationally benchmarking universities now, and so, for example, if you are an international company it is likely that the UK would have probably only about four or five universities it would regard as world-class for its purposes. If you are in one of those universities then your chances of doing pretty well are pretty good; so for the top 10 or 15% of graduates in the UK I think their prospects are okay. What worries me a great deal is the rest; because the more people you put into higher education, whether you like it or not, going into higher education comes with a set of expectations. If you like, it is a psychological contract between the university and the Government, because the Government has pushed this very much; learning is learning, you go to university and you will improve your prospects. What I think is that for large numbers of graduates it is not going to improve their prospects very much, and so I think looking at the differentiation in the graduate experience is very important.

  Professor Brennan: I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest that actually it is the prospects of students who go to many new universities that are almost transformed by going to higher education, because if you do not look at the input factors you can misunderstand the output factors. Some of our élite universities are very good at selecting an élite and that élite then is rewarded in the labour market; but, essentially, they were élite when they started and they are going to be the élite when they finish. The movement is actually taking place elsewhere in the sector and it may not be as spectacular, and of course they are not going to get as good jobs as being a member of the élite, but if you ask the question "How has your life been changed by going to university?" I am not sure that you will get the best stories from the élite institutions.

  Professor Robinson: Just two points. One is, I think we need to look more at the equation of cost, quality and value for money in relation to international students, both coming to the UK and on UK courses. The second point I would want to make is that I think there needs to be more exploration of different models of delivering courses for international students, using new technology, using different combinations of in-country, out of country, whatever. I think getting away from the idea, which many universities have, that there is only one kind of recruitment and that is bringing students here. I think the future lies with exploring the diversity of models and using them, not having just a single model, with a single audience, which may vanish, for some institutions, in the short term.

  Q678  Chairman: Thank you very much for that. I did think, Phillip, as you were expanding on that last theory of yours, that if you were up in Huddersfield University, in terms of getting people jobs and adding value to their careers, that is just Huddersfield, of course, but, like a lot of the new universities, we produce a lot of entrepreneurs. If you are blocked, if you have got the talent and you are blocked from getting into the élite professions, it may be that you want to do something a lot more useful than getting into the City.

  Professor Brown: I hope you are right.

  Chairman: It has been a very good session; can I thank you. Could you see this as a kind of `hello'? I thought we started to get under the skin of the argument somewhere, as the process is kind of a development one, but now you know who we are and we know who you are can we remain in conversation and communication. As you are going home, wherever it is, if there are things you think you should have said to the Committee, please get in touch; we are here to discuss these issues, this is a very important inquiry for us and we want to get it right. Thank you.

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