Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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
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
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,
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 senseand
I am making this point only for the purpose of the argumentI
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,
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 systemand I suspect this has persisted but maybe has
intensifiedwhereby 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 reportand
I do not blame you for saying what you need to saywould
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 citedwhich is to protect from political
interference over course contentshould 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
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
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
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.