Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-94)


28 NOVEMBER 2007

  Q80  Chairman: I do not want to go into the Scottish system, but I would like an answer to Dr Harris's basic question, it seems to be perfectly reasonable, that the Government have put a very significant amount of resource into student support both in 1998 and of course particularly in terms of the new fee structure. Is it not reasonable that a piece of research is carried out to see whether in fact that is actually achieving the objectives which the Government have set which are about widening participation and indeed to find out whether in fact it is deterring another cohort of students from going? Does that not seem reasonable?

  Bill Rammell: Yes, it does and we do regularly, for example, commission and fund the student income and expenditure survey which gives us all sorts of detailed information, and we do also look at the independent surveys that are undertaken by a whole host of other organisations to monitor the impact of the system. Having done that, and we do not reach a baseline and stop, it happens on an ongoing basis, I am convinced from all the evidence that I have seen that a lack of student finance is not acting as a deterrent for young people applying to university, but we need to go further.

  Professor Eastwood: The comment I wanted to make is that, if you look at the trend data on applications from 2002 onwards, with the exception of 2005 when there was a spike, there is basically a linear increase, and we can provide the Committee with the data. Now, Dr Harris is quite right to say that counterfactually, had the 2006 change not occurred, a different pattern might have prevailed, but actually what is suggested about the data is that it is broadly linear. What is interesting, but again amenable to a number of explanations, is that since 2006 applications in England have increased, they flatlined in Scotland and they have fallen in Wales. One of the things I take away from that is that applicants are quite discriminating and one of the things they are looking at is quality of provision and they do see a link between quality and funding and they do recognise that what is emerging in England is a mixed economy for funding.

  Q81  Dr Harris: But I want to see hard research, not surveys, not other people's surveys, but commissioned, independent, published and peer-reviewed research to back up your opinion which you have just given again, that they are looking at quality. You may be right, I do not know, I do not know the answer, but the stakes are so high here that I would urge you to consider commissioning research and, if you do not, the allegation might be that you do not want to know what the research shows.

  Bill Rammell: With respect, I would dispute that. I have already said for the record that there is research regularly undertaken. There is, for example, the recent Class of `99 Study which gives a whole host of information based on graduate experience, based on their experience of going through the system, and there is a whole host of other studies which are undertaken that we look at regularly.

  Chairman: It would be very useful if you could let us have a note in terms of the research which is carried out to actually respond to that particular point and then at least we have it on our record.

  Q82  Dr Harris: My final question in this area is to ask you about the situation where a student from an inner-city comprehensive which has never sent anyone to a top university gets three Bs and someone from a so-called top private school, say, Eton, gets two Bs and an A. Is it fair to give the place on the basis of UCCA scores? Is it anywhere near fair to the person with the huge advantages that they have had from resources, educational background and extra resources rather than to recognise that probably the brightest student there and the one that is most likely to benefit is the one that, despite all the disadvantages, has managed to get those sorts of results? If you think there is a question there, would it not be good to do research to see who gets the better degree comparing those two because, if you do not do that, you are just allowing discrimination to take place by this similar qualification requirement for all students?

  Bill Rammell: Let me say a couple of things to that and, firstly, to make clear that the admissions process is historically, and remains, a matter for the universities and not for government. Secondly, universities have always, and I think this is a positive thing, made judgments about an application based upon their attainment to date, but also their potential to succeed on a particular university course, and they use contextual information to reach those judgments. I think that is properly a matter for universities and I think that does help ensure that you measure and see people develop their potential, but I also think there is an issue around advice and guidance. One of the things we need to do very strongly is ensure, through the school system, through the connection system, that young people are given as much advice and support as possible to apply to university, to apply as early as possible and to apply to the university that will best suit the individual's talents.

  Chairman: I am pretty sure we will come back to this in the years to come.

  Q83  Dr Blackman-Woods: I am going to ask a couple of questions about public engagement. We know from the Strategic Plan that HEFCE is piloting an initiative, Beacons for Public Engagement, with, I think, the aim of getting better co-ordination that will reward, recognise and indeed build capacity for public engagement. Has there been any success so far from this initiative?

  Professor Eastwood: We in fact announced the beacons two[1] weeks ago, so it is early days, but what is actually very interesting is that we funded six beacons in a co-ordinating centre, we had 82 applications and many of the unsuccessful bidders are in fact taking forward public engagement-type activities and one of the key criteria for the scheme was that there had to be formal recognition for public engagement activities, so it was not just an investment that we might make, but that the institutions would themselves have to reward it through appraisal and through capturing public engagement as part of the whole initiative criteria. All the successful beacons will do that, but what is interesting is that a number of those who bid and were unsuccessful are doing precisely that, so yes, I think we are getting some benefit. This is, as you rightly say, a pilot and we will evaluate the pilot through the National Co-ordinating Centre located at Bristol and then we will determine, resources permitting, how far we can roll out the scheme subsequently.

  Q84 Dr Blackman-Woods: Is one aim of this to improve public engagement in research and to get greater understanding amongst the public of research that is undertaken in the universities?

  Professor Eastwood: Absolutely, and when we launched it at the press conference, with me was Nancy Rothwell from Manchester and Cathy Sykes from Bristol and they both actually instanced precisely the way in which those dialogues had actually reshaped some aspects of the research agenda, so it is something that sits very passionately at the heart of the scheme. This is not public understanding in the old sense of academics simply telling people what they needed to know, but it is conversationally based, so there is listening as well as speaking in this formal way.

  Q85  Dr Gibson: Would it help if all universities developed an academy in their area?

  Professor Eastwood: I think from the point of view of a public engagement scheme, that sits outwith the way in which universities are engaging with schools, but a recent survey has demonstrated that all universities engage with schools and a number have multiple partnerships.

  Q86  Dr Gibson: But you have to put a lot more money in to get universities to come out of their ivory towers and go in there—and you hear of £1.2 million recently—to engage with the public. How are they going to do that?

  Professor Eastwood: Well, in the case of the UEA, they are going to build on the very successful public engagement that they had around their Festival of Science in 2006. In the case of the University of Manchester and its partners at Manchester Met and Salford, they are going to build on dialogues they are already having in East Manchester and Moss Side with difficult-to-reach communities in part actually around some rather interesting science questions, but in part around questions of social inclusion and social depravation.

  Bill Rammell: If I can just pick up the point, universities do have good links and we want them to reinforce those links with schools, and academies is part of the way forward. We have got 25 universities pursuing those initiatives at the moment and also trust schools where there are a further 25 engaged in that process, and I do think that link between universities and schools is really important.

  Q87  Dr Blackman-Woods: Can I just come back briefly to the issue of research. Are you gathering evidence that this dialogue between the public and academics is actually shaping research differently or is it just ensuring that what is carried out already in the universities is communicated more effectively to the public or is it both?

  Professor Eastwood: It is both actually and the National Co-ordinating Centre in Bristol is charged with, as it were, advising on best practice, but also on, in real time, reviewing the effectiveness and impact of the public engagement initiatives and, if they are not achieving those aims, then we will make interventions to ensure that they do.

  Q88  Mr Marsden: David, the Government has accepted the thrust of the Leitch Report, and the Minister has made the points already this morning that we obviously need to focus on economically valuable skills, that all those providers need to have a new learning culture and that it needs to have a significantly greater demand-led element. What evidence is there so far, given that Leitch came out nearly a year ago now, that some of the traditional higher education institutions, particularly the Russell Group of institutions, understand the challenges and the implications of Leitch for changing their own governance and teaching cultures?

  Professor Eastwood: I think I would make two comments. Firstly, I see the Leitch agenda as a broad-ranging agenda. If we are talking about higher-level skills, we are talking about skills which comprise Masters-level qualifications, and what is the MBA if it is not an employer-facing skill, and it reaches right across the PhDs as well. There are, however, in Leitch and in our grant letter(?) new challenges, including the challenge of securing co-funded provision jointly between higher education institutions and employers. That was widely thought to be a hard ask, that was widely thought to be something that the sector would not be able to step up to. As of yesterday, we have funded 15 institutions around employer co-funded numbers, there are a further six major projects in the pipeline and by 2009-10 I confidently expect about 40 institutions at least to be involved in that and that will actually cover the range of universities.

  Q89  Mr Marsden: You are talking there about actual projects and funding, but of course there is a subtler implication to Leitch and that is the culture of teaching and learning. Again I repeat my question: what evidence have you got that some of the implications of that are feeding through to the Russell Group, but not to other universities?

  Professor Eastwood: I think what we are seeing are two things. We are already seeing universities having a fresh impetus to delivering learning in different ways and in different locations, including in the workplace, and there are some quite surprising institutions coming forward—

  Q90  Mr Marsden: Do you want to name one or two?

  Professor Eastwood: Well, for example, we have just funded the University of Leicester and, interestingly, at the same meeting we will fund the University of Leicester and Leicester de Montfort both in employer engagement initiatives and I think what that demonstrates is the kind of sector-wide commitment that we are beginning to see to this agenda.

  Q91  Mr Marsden: Bill, can I turn to you now again on this issue of changing culture and everything that goes with it. One of the things that is also clear, I think, from the discussion that has followed Leitch is the observation that higher education and further education are melding closer together, and that is an observation not least on the amount of HE that is now delivered by FE colleges, but it actually seems to be a very strong objective of government, that there should be much closer links between HE and FE. Do you think, therefore, that we are doing enough structurally to assist the connections between HE and FE, and I am thinking particularly of the issue of portability between HE institutions and portability of courses between HE and FE institutions?

  Bill Rammell: Well, the review of credit arrangements that Professor Burgess led for the sector, which will mean by the end of the decade that every institution, if they are signed up to it, has to have a credit rating for their courses that can enable that degree of interchangeability, I think, will be important. I think there are greater links between the two sectors and we have got about 11% of students being educated to degree level in the FE sector at the moment, but, as we look at our options of what we do, and we are going back to consultation in the New Year about the new structure, 14 to 19 funding will be routed through local authorities, post-19, what structures do we look at, one of the issues that we are reflecting upon is what are the best ways that we can actually maximise the output from both sectors. At this stage, and this is genuinely the case because we are looking at this on a week-to-week basis, I do not want to rule anything in or anything out, but I do think we need to see the best fit between the two sectors.

  Q92  Dr Gibson: How can they ever be equal when one is doing top-flight research and you are funding them and the others are not? There is always going to be that kind of inherent snobbery in higher education, or they would have joined together in one institute.

  Bill Rammell: Well, I think if you look, for example, at foundation degree level and you measure the outcomes, and in any degree programme, if you look at the QAA framework, there has to be a research input, but I think the outcome in many FE colleges at the moment, and their provision is delivered by the higher education sector, is very, very positive. One of the changes that we made during the FE and Training Bill which has just secured Royal Assent is the ability for highly performing FE colleges to be able to award their own—and I have probably anticipated the next question—foundation degrees and I think that is about ensuring that there is as much flexibility and innovation within the system to respond to the needs of business while maintaining an absolutely rigorous focus on quality.

  Dr Gibson: But the research is so expensive.

  Q93  Mr Marsden: You have indeed pre-empted my next question, but, given that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet about co-operation and collaboration between FE and HE, do you think the spat over the validation process of FE colleges doing their own foundation degrees, has that helped or harmed the prospect of the collaboration between HE and FE because, and I am not making a value judgment, there is no doubt that a large number of university vice chancellors, not least those in the House of Lords, got themselves very exercised on the issue?

  Bill Rammell: I made the point earlier that I have got the highest admiration for the university sector, but they defend their territory whatever change comes forward. My very strong sense, from talking to people, is that they have now accepted this and they are working at it. For example, one of the commitments that we made within that Bill is that you have to have an articulation agreement to demonstrate, if you have got a foundation degree, how, if that suits you, you can go on to get a full honours programme, and that inevitably involves significant co-operation with a higher education institution. It is also the case that, even for those high-performing FE colleges, they may for a variety of reasons choose not to break their relationship in terms of accreditation and validation with the university because they are happy with it, fine, but this is about maximising the flexibility and innovation in the system and I do think it was an important change.

  Q94  Mr Marsden: And not too much blood on the floor?

  Bill Rammell: No.

  Professor Eastwood: Indeed before that debate took place, HEFCE had already consulted on revising its approach to the funding of HE and further education, and we have agreement to that being strategic, that further education colleges which provide higher education will provide now strategic statements of the way in which they do it and the issue you raised a moment ago, Mr Marsden, about progression and portability will be a part of that as will issues around quality of provision and so forth. I think what we can see from the way in which we take that forward is strong collaboration, irrespective of whether an FEC is itself seeking a foundation degree or not.

  Chairman: On that note, we will bring this session to an end. Can we thank Bill Rammell, the Minister for Lifelong Learning, and Professor David Eastwood, the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Funding Council, for their evidence this morning. Thank you both very, very much indeed.

1   Note from Witness: three weeks, the Beacons launch took place on 8 November Back

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