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

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 60-79)


17 JULY 2008

  Q60  Dr Evan Harris: Do you think that research should be done? Would it be awkward for you?

  Mr Williams: It would not be awkward for us, but we do not do research of that sort.

  Q61  Dr Evan Harris: Should it be done?

  Mr Williams: Research of that sort is always interesting. You have to watch the method very carefully, because there are methodological issues there about where you choose them from, what year you choose them from and so on.

  Q62  Chairman: This is descending into farce really. It is more than interesting; it goes right to the heart of what we are talking about. You are saying that an individual institution can award as many firsts as it can, provided it satisfies its own criteria as to what a first means. Somehow you are saying that the broader public, employers and the international community, do not make a distinction between a first at Oxford and a first at Uttoxeter. Nobody believes that, do they?

  Mr Williams: There are a number of things you have said there. The first is that it is not quite as bad as that because there is an external examination system which brings external eyes to play on the standards. The external examiner system is a very valuable system. It is a very good way of a university knowing where it sits in relation to other institutions that the external examiner himself or herself knows. But by its very nature it is a limited system. It cannot provide a kind of nationwide security when we are dealing with, whatever it is, 600,000 students a year in 118 awarding bodies in England.

  Q63  Chairman: That is what quality assurance is about, is it not?

  Mr Williams: No. It is not about a single monolithic—

  Q64  Mr Wilson: You seem to be saying you are completely satisfied with the external examiner system as it currently stands, but there are a lot of people who just think it is bringing in mates on the course team to shore up what is going on.

  Mr Williams: I did not say I am entirely satisfied with the external examiner system. Our reports suggest there are a number of things that need to be looked at. I am saying it is a valuable and useful part of the system. What you are all saying essentially backs up our argument that the degree classification system is past its usefulness. It is not doing what it claims to do and therefore should be changed. And it is being changed. The implementation committee is in place and it is doing its work in order to change that because everybody agrees that it is not now fit for its original purpose.

  Q65  Mr Boswell: Could I go back to the technical side of this, which in a sense it harks back to an earlier exchange we have already had about your institutional confidence. Your view on degree classification is that it is not a system that is going to work but there needs to be some base-load threshold standard which enables you to say this institution is offering something that is called a degree and not something that is called a recreational attainment certificate. That does require some degree of objectivity of criteria.

  Mr Williams: Yes.

  Q66  Mr Boswell: In a sense—and I am making this point only for the purpose of the argument—I would be interested to know how you can apply that, which presumably will read across into a new system. If you can apply it at the level of threshold adequacy, if you like, why could you not do so in further areas? Is it because you do not want to get to intrusive on the institution or you become less confident about your findings or you are liable to be sued on it or whatever?

  Mr Williams: In answer to your first question, there is in place something which we call the Academic Infrastructure. I do not want to bore you with the detail of that, but one part of that is the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications, which is a set of descriptors of the level that should be achieved in order to be awarded with a degree. That goes from certificate to diplomas, to honours degrees, to masters degrees, to PhDs.

  Q67  Mr Boswell: And that is, as it were, a reasonably objective test that you can apply reasonably, with confidence.

  Mr Williams: It is a reasonably objective test. It is very generic because it covers all degrees of any subject. But that is backed up by subject benchmark statements, which are an indication of the expectations in terms of characteristics of graduates in individual subjects. That provides an external boundary, if you like, within which institutions operate. They are free to operate, the autonomy allows them to operate within that, but there is that boundary. It is that boundary, in a sense, that we police. Within it, they are free to do what they like.

  Q68  Mr Boswell: Could you just go on to talk about the development above that.

  Mr Williams: Institutions are free to develop whatever they like. The difficulty is when they all use exactly the same five-point scale but in different ways. That is the problem. It is not consistent. It is the lack of consistency that is the problem that we see.

  Q69  Mr Boswell: So we have created a system—and I suspect this has persisted but maybe has intensified—whereby the fiction has been that the University of Cambridge and the University of Uttoxeter (shall we say, neutrally) are identical and what they are applying is the same.

  Mr Williams: Yes.

  Q70  Mr Boswell: But it probably never was the case and it certainly cannot be the case now.

  Mr Williams: Yes. They do different things in different ways for different purposes.

  Dr Nick Harris: I wonder if I could come in here, because I think we have to take a couple of examples. Essentially we are talking about a set of steps that build up to this classification and this assumption that all first class degrees are the same. No, of course they are not. All of you come from different backgrounds. Different students are following different programmes and in different universities, and the purposes of those programmes and the needs of the employers who employ those students are quite different. For example, a physiology student and a philosopher would not expect to be on the same type of programme and be assessed with exactly the same criteria. There is a different balance between theory and practice. Some will have more theory, some will have more practice. Exactly the same might be said of someone with a classics or with an agricultural degree: you would not expect the same criteria to be being used and the same outcome but a first class agriculturalist in the agricultural environment should, I would have thought, be recognised, as would a first class classicist in their own environment.

  Q71  Dr Evan Harris: I do not think any of us have been questioning the distinction between subjects. It is the same subject. For example, if there was the doubt that there is about this at A-level, if universities or employers just did not know how to deal with whether an A from one examination board was easier to get to for a given standard than an A from another, there would be outrage, even if the language used was less than the language you have used in your report—and I do not blame you for saying what you need to say—would there not? I do not understand why there is the difference because, as I understand it, the percentage of A-level work funded by the taxpayer is the same, once you account for private schools and private tuition, as the percentage of higher education funded by the taxpayer. I do not understand why university autonomy, which is what is cited—which is to protect from political interference over course content—should be used as the reason for not being worried about ensuring that the classifications one would get are meaningful.

  Mr Williams: The research evidence seems to suggest that that is the way it is and that is why we think it is not a good system or one of the reasons that we think it is not a good system.

  Q72  Dr Evan Harris: Do you accept that university autonomy is not a good enough reason for the taxpayer, who has an 80%, let us say, stake in funding this, not to be concerned about the fact that, at best, there is doubt about the comparability of degree classifications from different institutions for the same subject?

  Mr Williams: I think the taxpayer should take comfort from the fact that this has been identified by the higher education community itself as a concern and is doing something about it.

  Q73  Mr Wilson: I think we are grappling towards an all-embracing question. From your long experience in higher education, are degree standards higher or lower now than they were, say, 10-20 years ago?

  Mr Williams: I think it depends on how you define standards there. It sounds like a weasely answer, but it is not meant to be.

  Q74  Mr Wilson: It does sound like a weasely answer. You are responsible for quality assurance in the sector.

  Mr Williams: Perhaps I could ask you how you are defining standards in that question.

  Q75  Mr Wilson: You define the standards, do you not?

  Mr Williams: We do.

  Q76  Mr Wilson: That is your job.

  Mr Williams: We do, and we define them very precisely. I will tell you how we define them. For our operational purposes, we define academic standards as predetermined and explicit levels of achievement which must be reached for a student to be granted a qualification.

  Q77  Chairman: The point I made earlier: the individual institution decides that very point, the criteria by which they award.

  Mr Williams: Yes. That is their prerogative as autonomous institutions.

  Mr Wilson: That could be as low as they like.

  Mr Boswell: Above a threshold.

  Q78  Mr Wilson: Above a minimum threshold.

  Mr Williams: Above a threshold.

  Q79  Chairman: When University M says, "We have to get more firsts in order to move up the league tables to attract students" they can arbitrarily do that with absolute ease.

  Mr Williams: That is the legal state of affairs, yes. But, of course, if they do not have firsts, there is nothing for them to do. They cannot do it.

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