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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 40-59)


17 JULY 2008

  Q40  Dr Evan Harris: What is going on out there that improves peer review?

  Mr Williams: Our training, our feedback, our evaluation and our annual updating of reviewers.

  Q41  Mr Boswell: For clarity, we are taking about your peer review process as part of external audit.

  Mr Williams: Yes.

  Q42  Mr Boswell: We are not talking about your views on peer review.

  Mr Williams: No.

  Q43  Mr Boswell: That is conducted at the course level.

  Mr Williams: This is what we do.

  Q44  Mr Boswell: Your own systems.

  Mr Williams: Yes, our own internal quality assurance.

  Q45  Chairman: On 23 June you produced the outcomes from institutional audit, the three reports. You noted in your reports and, indeed, in your press release that accompanied them that there had been "much solid achievement". On 23 June, Peter, you gave an interview to the BBC in which you said that the system was robust, but then you made a number of criticisms in language which might be characterised as headline-grabbing. You said, for example, that the degree classification was "arbitrary and unreliable" and you went on to say that it was "rotten". Do you believe that key parts of the UK's higher education system are defective? When somebody from QAA says the system is "arbitrary and unreliable" and "rotten" you can hardly blame the media for then picking that up and saying that is what you said.

  Mr Williams: Those particular quotes were taken, as you will appreciate, from a much longer discussion with a journalist, and of course he picked out the plums—perfectly reasonably.

  Q46  Chairman: That is what they do.

  Mr Williams: Indeed, they do. But it was part of a longer conversation. What surprises me is not that they picked it up in June but that they did not pick it up in April 2007 when I said exactly the same thing. I said rather more robust things, reported on BBC Online, and nobody at all commented. This is the specific question of how a student's achievement is recorded. It is not about the general higher education system in this country, which I believe is robust, is solid, and is good.

  Q47  Chairman: This is degree classification.

  Mr Williams: It is degree classification. That is the only thing I was talking about when I said that the system was rotten—and I agree that rotten is a colourful adjective to use. I have strong feelings about the degree classification system which I have made clear on a number of occasions.

  Chairman: That goes really to the heart of confidence in our higher education system, does it not? Degree classification employers think is important. People will get jobs or their futures depend on that degree classification.

  Mr Boswell: And the grading of universities.

  Q48  Chairman: And the grading of universities is that. When people are accused of inflating the number of firsts—and we seem to have had a miraculous improvement in student achievement in some of our universities—that does not give confidence, does it? Is that what you were talking about?

  Mr Williams: All I was really doing was echoing the discussions in the two Burgess committees and now the implementation group, which came to the same conclusion: the system is not fit for purpose. It is as if that system was designed for other times, for a smaller higher education world. We have now reached the end of the "display by" date and we have now pretty well got to the "use by" date.

  Q49  Chairman: Why did you not say in your reports that in future you will not in fact inspect or audit universities until they reform their degree classification to give confidence in the system? Surely you can drive this.

  Mr Williams: We are driving it, in a way, in the influence we have had on the Burgess group and the implementation process which is ongoing. Our Quality Matters paper which we brought out in April 2007 left nobody in any doubt about why we thought the system was time-expired. The decision on reclassification is one for the sector; it is not one for individual institutions. It would be extremely difficult for a single institution to move unilaterally on that. In the early 1990s the University of London tried to do it. It gave itself five years, I think it was, for a transition period to get rid of degree classifications in favour of a common transcript. It did not work. It did not happen because people were not prepared to jettison that with which they were comfortable.

  Q50  Mr Boswell: Perhaps I could pick up on that, not historically but conceptually. Clearly there is a strong attraction for employers, and probably for students as well, in having some assurance of some coherence about what they have. I am no expert on the alternative system and I am not wishing to advocate this, but, given that you can see the present system is strained to the limits or gone beyond the limits—partly because of the greater number of higher education institutions and the diversity which I welcome—is there any common core that ought to be kept out of that, so that, if we take the institutions which are geographically equidistant from my home, the University of Oxford and the University of Northampton, both of which I know very well, there is some sense in which an attainment which is excellent in one is reflected or could be said to be comparable with comparable excellence at another. Is there something you want to salvage out of the degree classification to provide some common currency?

  Mr Williams: This is contested territory. A lot of people have different views on it and mine is just one view. I think we have to agree the basic level at which a British degree is valid.

  Q51  Mr Boswell: That is the threshold.

  Mr Williams: That is right, the threshold. Once you get above the threshold, then it is much more important that you are clear about what it is you have. Of course, diversity means you get different things—not that one is better than the other but they are different from each other—and the important thing is that it is clear what it is you have. I think that information about a student's achievement is more important than trying to give them a brand, a five-point scale which is claimed to be the same across the whole country. It cannot happen. It is logistically not possible.

  Q52  Dr Evan Harris: Forgive me, Tim, if this was not your question, but is the question whether an employer who has two candidates, one with a first class degree from Cambridge and another with a first class degree from another university which is much more recent—

  Mr Williams: Uttoxeter is an example.

  Q53  Dr Evan Harris: Uttoxeter, yes. I am not sure I have ever been. Would an employer be correct in thinking that those students had the same value of qualification?

  Mr Williams: I think it would be rather foolish to assume that. There is no common definition of what a first is.

  Q54  Dr Evan Harris: Let us say there are allegations of parochialism, so that a major employer had to have observed the awarding institution, would you say that they would notice the difference, if they were not able to distinguish in appointments between a first class degree from Cambridge and one from Uttoxeter, as you have put it?

  Mr Williams: It is impossible to say.

  Q55  Dr Evan Harris: Is it really impossible to say?

  Mr Williams: I think it is. It is very, very difficult. The evidence suggests that there is no consistency between subjects in institutions or between institutions.

  Q56  Dr Evan Harris: I do not understand. If you need to get, say, the equivalent of three As at A-level to get into one institution and you can get into another institution with something like three Ds at A-level, and you both end up with a first class degree, is it reasonable for employers to take cognisance of that? If not, what is the point of having that classification or, indeed, any classification, unless it does distinguish between ability? Exams, surely, should be the same standard.

  Mr Williams: In this country we have 118, I think it is, awarding bodies. That is 118 individual institutions with the powers to award their own degrees and to set their own standards. They do that as autonomous bodies. There is not, in a sense, a national curriculum and a national examination.

  Q57  Dr Evan Harris: I thought your job was to check that people were not being awarded first class degrees undeserved in one institution. In a consumerised market, people can say "I've got a greater chance of getting a first class degree there, given my entry qualifications."

  Mr Williams: No, that is not part of our job. Our job in that is to say to the institution, "Do you have some rules and regulations about what a first is? Can you tell us? Can you show us what you mean by a first? Do your assessment systems guarantee that only the people who meet those are given a first? Is that process operating satisfactorily?"

  Q58  Dr Evan Harris: If some research was done with new graduates that showed objectively there was a massive discrepancy in the standard of knowledge attained in that subject between two people holding first class honours degrees, would that suggest that your system was not sufficient to identify that? Would you be concerned by it? Would you commission your own research?

  Mr Williams: We have done that. The April 2007 paper essentially is saying that.

  Q59  Dr Evan Harris: You have taken a graduate with a first from one place and a graduate from another—lots of them to make it statistically significant—tested them and looked at what the results say.

  Mr Williams: No, we are not a research organisation of that sort.

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