Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 93

Submission from the University of Sunderland


" . . . a bad policy . . . based on a false choice" (Lord Puttnam of Queensgate, House of Lords, 3rd Dec. 2007)

    —  This University deprecates the fundamental premise of the ELQ directive.

    —  Whilst acknowledging the importance of ensuring HE's responsiveness both to the Access agenda and to the development of employer facing provision we do not believe that this directive to the HEFCE will enhance those purposes.

    —  Rather we suggest that it will militate against important challenges of re-skilling the workforce and in so doing will also discriminate against the needs of particular groups of workers including women and others.

    —  The removal of provision for lifelong learners will also imperil that provision for first time learners, including access students, where critical masses are delicately poised. Such outcomes can not be justified on the grounds of fairness.

    —  Where Universities are already active in widening participation and work based learning in challenging regional contexts the suggested redirection of funding to those needs will not easily be realised. Instead, the benefit of this redirection will be to Universities in more prosperous regional contexts where targeted ASNs are more easily realisable.

    —  The available information in respect of exemptions from the ELQ directive is eccentric in its detail. We urge the inclusion of, for example, Pharmacy as a subject where national shortages are evident. Equally, the laudable inclusion of Islamic Studies is not complemented by the inclusion of other theological traditions or indeed philosophical studies.


  1.1  This move is intended prima facie to redirect a resource within HE funding away from those who are already graduates towards a) others who have not studied at HE level and b) selected categories of learners in work or in subjects of strategic importance and interest. We suggest that this premise is misconceived because as well as not necessarily providing additional benefit to those categories identified it specifically removes opportunity from those currently benefiting. Universities are very alive both to the access agenda and to the work based learning agenda. Incentives in respect of both priorities already exist via ASNs explicitly, via Aim Higher and similar activity and in the sector's own acute sensitivity to the Higher Skills agenda. It is not the case that Universities are currently prevented from responding to these drivers. It is the case, however, that Universities provide sophisticated higher skills opportunities and re-skilling opportunities to those whose qualifications are outdated, redundant or otherwise unsuited to their career needs, their employer's development agenda or a particular regional economic context. Very many of these learners will be excluded by the ELQ directive since it assumes a one-chance opportunity for those without degrees. Such thinking runs counter to most publicly expressed and commonly held understandings about the relationship between a vibrant economy and its re-skilling challenges.


  2.1  Universities have a very good track record in providing higher learning to students at different career stages. Such learning is not, however, necessarily sequential in level. Early careers do often develop by level within sectors—for example lawyers from UG to PG study, graduates to MBAs and so forth. Nevertheless re-skilling at UG level is extremely common where local economies evolve and change direction and where individuals in the workforce undergo planned and unplanned career breaks and changes.

  2.2  In the North East, for example, the massive tasks of re-skilling pursuant to the demise of mass employment in heavy industry and mining drew heavily on the Universities' capacity and in the process provided important new opportunities to many existing graduates.

  2.3  It is also the case that established sectors have re-skilling needs resulting from technological change, surges in expertise bases or the influx of specialist employers. With the increase in the numbers of graduates in the workforce generally it is the case that most re-skilling agendas therefore involve those with ELQs. In the North East, for example, the Cultural and Creative sector which is playing such a significant role in regeneration comprises diverse workforces with, typically, a 50% population educated to NVQ level 4 including degree level study (North East Skills Action Plan, Bowman Solutions 2005).

  2.4  There is an obvious and particular impact on those whose career breaks and moves are dictated by personal circumstance such as child bearing. The ELQ directive has therefore a singular discriminatory impact on women who began one career after graduating when young but who find themselves uncompetitive on returning to the workforce a decade later—or indeed whose employment sector has now disappeared or evolved in new directions. It is invidious to expect such people to settle for less than their capacity merits when a programme of PT UG study, for example, could transform their employability. Equally it is inappropriate to expect these learners to make artificial choices simply because a choice is funded. Thus the blanket exemption of Foundation Degrees, whilst laudable, will not make up for current opportunities soon to be lost. We would also point out that vibrant lifelong learning portfolios with a strong Access mission, such as Sunderland's, provide significant opportunities for those with a range of disabilities and health problems to re-enter the workforce with relevant and fresh skills and knowledge. Equally, the currency of much graduate level capacity has a briefer lifespan in sectors where change is rapid. Insofar as we have been able to map the trajectories of current ELQ students at Sunderland, it appears to be the case that the majority acquired their degrees more than ten years ago. We suggest that this pattern is likely to be repeated nationally.


  3.1  Where Universities have developed large and diverse programmes of PT study they have continued to plan and to manage this provision alongside expertise bases and infrastructure which support FT programmes. Thus where an expertise base around, for example, accountancy or public health serves a mixed population of PT and FT students there are economies of scale which enable niche or specialist studies at modular level to remain viable. The ELQ directive will remove large numbers from the funded pool in many instances and will also therefore make much niche or specialist provision unviable for FT as well as for the ELQ PT students. Thus there will be unintended impacts for existing FT students as the portfolio adjusts to these pressures. As is widely known, the University of Sunderland has one of the best widening access records in the country. A key strategy of the University is for much part-time provision to be delivered by a specialist Centre for Lifelong Learning. This ensures that provision is responsive to the availability of part-time students (an express aim of the government policy) and is also tailored to the needs of mature students. This model facilitates outreach provision, and is particularly important in delivering to communities without a tradition of HE participation—particularly for those who may have missed out on study before or who have had unsuccessful experiences of learning. However, the loss of ELQ funding in the creative arts and cultural areas may make this delivery model unviable in precisely the areas which have proved most successful in attracting disadvantaged students back to learning. The Sunderland University programme of courses at Blyth in Northumberland, delivered in partnership with the Blyth Resource Initiative Centre, has delivered HE level learning to over 2000 students in an area of multiple deprivation since the inception of the partnership. This learning would not have been possible had the ELQ policy been in place: outreach work takes place in over 40 venues in the North East, and the loss of even a small number of ELQ students makes ensuring critical mass everywhere impossible.

  3.2  The DIUS/HEFCE's intention to vire the ELQ savings to fund further access and employer-facing provision via ASNs and other devices will also impose curriculum and infrastructure burdens on Universities. For example, the expertise base, pedagogic sophistication and facility with learning technology needed to support higher learning in the work place differs from that required to support other forms of PT learning. Universities welcome these challenges and are already very active in work based learning more generally. However, the scale and pace of the redirection required will not be achieved easily where large numbers are involved.


  4.1  It is axiomatic that the ELQ directive will impact more significantly on those Universities with large and diverse PT portfolios than on those with restricted PT offers. The published list of financial impacts illustrates this very well. Thus many Universities will face major challenges of readjustment which will only partially be ameliorated by the suggested palliatives of freezing the teaching grant temporarily at 2007 levels and tapering the full implementation.

  4.2  More subtly it is the case that even amongst the population of major "loser" Universities, there are differential capacities for capitalising on the supposed new funding opportunities available via the redirection of ELQ savings into Access and Employer Facing provision. Where such Universities are located in regional economic contexts of high demand and high ability-to-pay, the redirection offered will be achievable often through the addressing of unmet demand locally. Where Universities, however, are already at the limits of exploiting the Access agenda and where they are already extremely active in partnering locally on work based learning and have difficulty in drawing on existing ASN offers, then this redirection of funding will not be available to them. Thus a further consequence of the ELQ directive will be, over time, to redistribute HE funding away from Universities in challenging regional economic contexts to the further advantage of Universities in more prosperous contexts—particularly in Southern England. This redirection of funding thus impoverishes the capacity of, for example, North East Universities to play the necessary role in economic regeneration more broadly.


  5.1  It has been noted passim in the responses to the ELQ directive that the list of exempted subjects is eccentric. Whilst acknowledging that such lists draw on existing taxonomies of subjects and disciplines which have been noted previously as either vulnerable or of strategic importance to the economy, we suggest that the extant list nevertheless attracts obvious opprobrium when seen in the specific context of ELQs.

  5.2  There are many examples where subjects of clear national strategic importance have not been acknowledged. We point to the specific example of Pharmacy, inter alia. There is an accepted national shortage of expertise in Pharmacy. The planned expansion of provision to meet need is imperilled by the withdrawal of some Universities from the development of new Schools of Pharmacy. The role of Pharmacists in wider public health agendas is widely acknowledged. Very many people enter Pharmacy as a re-skilling or retraining move. Thus the ELQ directive in even this one clear instance will remove scarce skills from the economy and from an important public policy imperative.


  6.1  In conclusion, the University would wish to note that the whole orientation of the policy misunderstands the nature of the learning required to maintain the prospects of individual students and the economy as a whole. The policy assumes that value to the economy will come from the maximum number of students educated to the highest specialist level in subjects chosen on a one-chance-only basis. However, our experience, as a key lesson of Leitch is that the economy needs students to be educated to optimal level in relevant skills areas as circumstances dictate and crucially to be able to update those skills. A further Leitch conclusion is the linkage of rising productivity with effective skilling of the workforce. This will not always—or necessarily—be achieved by workers upskilling sequentially by level. A worker who finds her true potential in parallel retraining may be at least as productive.

  6.2  The University asks the committee to:

    (a)  request that government review the policy to suspend ELQ funding, and instead look at alternative ways of working with HE on the work-based learning agenda.

    (b)  request that the government at the very least mitigate the damage to vulnerable groups and key economic areas by extending the range of exemptions as follows:

    —  the proposed Subject based exemptions to be supplemented by additional subjects required by regional needs as identified by regional SSCs or RDAs (for instance, the Culture and Creative Sector and Pharmacy would be expected to be priorities in the NE).

    —  degree level qualifications to be ignored after 5 years for the purposes of ELQ assessment.

    —  full exemption from ELQ designation for all sub-degree awards to level 1 (HE).

January 2008

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