Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
17 JULY 2008
Q80 Mr Boswell: In a sense, you are
suggesting we disarm this arms race which has taken place by banning
the essential component, the degree classification.
Mr Williams: That is one consequence
of itone beneficial, in my view, consequence.
Q81 Mr Boswell: To go on from that
slightlybecause I think we are going to get into what one
might call the politics of this in a minutecould we get
a view from you as to whether all this has happened, as it were,
objectively and in the air? Because there are highly complex conceptual
issues, like what a first class degree would be, and, in a sense,
the diversity of the system is broken because the challenges are
now too great. Or is it in fact a more sordid process, where one
or two persons haveas some people in the press are suggestingmanipulated
the system to pump up their institution and will indirectly destroy
public confidence. Is this an academic argument or a cynical manipulation
that is going onnot by you, but by those you identify?
Mr Williams: I would like to start
with the academic argument, because I think there is an academic
argument here. The academic argument is that, essentially, over
the last 15 to 20 years, higher education has moved from what
one might describe as a norm-referenced classification arrangement
to a criterion-referenced classification arrangement; that is
to say, that hitherto or previously it was common for quotas to
be applied to graduates from year to year, course to course.
Q82 Mr Boswell: With 13% firsts.
Mr Williams: That is right, we
would expect to see 5%, 6% or 7% firsts or whatever. There tended
to be quite a nice normal distribution curve. Over the last 10
or 15 years we have moved away from that which, in a sense, gave
no account of how good you were as a student, merely where you
were in the rank order of the cohort of that particular year,
to what we might call a criterion-referenced system where the
question is: What have you achieved? That does allow for improvement
in standards. As students are learning more and being able to
do well in their assessments, so that will be reflected in the
outcome. I am fairly sure that is part of the reasonand
of course institutions will not tell us. We do not have direct
evidence yet of what you have described as the more sordid approach.
If we were to encounter that, we would want to know precisely
why and how a university was operating the decision, essentially,
to go back to a norm-reference system but a norm-referencing against
other institutions rather than within a class.
Q83 Dr Evan Harris: Is the data availableit
must beof the percentage of, say, firsts for any given
subject across each institution?
Mr Williams: Yes.
Q84 Dr Evan Harris: It is on your
Mr Williams: Yes, HESA produces
Q85 Dr Evan Harris: You would expect,
would you notor am I wrong?that a university with
significantly higher entrance standards and decent education would
have a much higher proportion of first class degrees awarded than
a university with lower entry criteria and the same decent standard
Mr Williams: Yes. That is what
the evidence suggests.
Q86 Dr Evan Harris: You said universities
were sorting this out. Diana Warwick, the Chief Executive of the
higher education representative body, Universities UK, is quoted
in the BBC story as saying "Universities are already debating
the classification of degrees". Is "debating" higher
education talk for "sorting it out"? Or is it the same
as we use here, which is just talking about it?
Mr Williams: One of the reasons
I am keen to discuss this is to ensure that the progress is continued.
It is being implemented.
Q87 Dr Evan Harris: It is being more
Mr Williams: More than debated.
The debate has happened.
Q88 Dr Evan Harris: After your press
release and the news coverage, what contact did you have from
DIUS, from the Government Department?
Mr Williams: DIUS wanted me to
explain to them what the import of the press release and the BBC
online account was. I explained to them the circumstances.
Q89 Dr Evan Harris: And that was
Mr Williams: They thanked me.
Q90 Mr Wilson: Could I come back,
because we did not get to an answer to my question as to whether
you thought standards have gone up or down. I know we have talked
about the individual awarding powers. In your experience, taking
into account the conversation we have just had, have they gone
up or down?
Mr Williams: I do not know. What
I can say is that they are appropriate for todayjust as
the standards of 1890 would not be appropriate today.
Q91 Mr Wilson: Do you not think it
is a little bit worrying that you, representing your organisation,
do not know whether standards are going up or down.
Mr Williams: The definition that
we use for standards does not allow the question of whether they
go up or down. Standards are arbitrary. Standards are fixed. If
you are saying have they changed in some places they may have
done, in other places they may not have done.
Q92 Chairman: They are only fixed
by an individual institution.
Mr Williams: Yes, but they have
to be fixed by that institution; that is to say, the standards
are there, that is our standard.
Chairman: That is not the question that
Rob Wilson is asking you. He is asking you how can we determine
whether, overall, the cost of X plus Y is the number of students
now getting firsts or upper seconds compared with what they were
doing ten years ago. The question is: Does that mean that standards
in higher education have risen?
Q93 Mr Boswell: I do not wish to
obfuscate the question, because that is very pointed, but I think
it is also necessary to ask, because we need to get feedback from
you: Within all the constraints that we all understand about academic
autonomy, is there at least some merit in considering whether
there should be an objective standard? You say that it is not
a question you can answer because there is no common standard
of standards. Ought there to be a common standard so you could
answer the question?
Mr Williams: To a proper common
standard would apply a national examination. A national examination,
because otherwise you would always be comparing different
Q94 Mr Boswell: You would never be
able to work out whether it had met the standard or not.
Mr Williams: Exactly. A common
standard would also undermine fundamentally the diversity of the
Q95 Mr Wilson: What is your personal
opinion? Not your opinion in the position as head of this organisation,
but your personal opinion of standards and whether they have risen
Mr Williams: My personal opinionand
it is a personal opinionis that there has been some raising
of standards. How much, I do not know. I think the students of
today are very concerned indeed about the consequences for them
of their degree class and are working hard to ensure they get
the best possible level of degree. That suggests to me that standards
have risen or at least have not significantly fallen.
Q96 Mr Boswell: Are you able to give
us a similar appraisal as to the differentiation of standards?
We have established there is no single standard, but clearly there
are a lot more institutions offering degrees which, in a sense,
are making a claim by doing so. Is it your impression that the
spread has now changed? Some of the serious players and the ones
who have a huge reputation in place are going up, shall we say,
and some of the others who are dependent on recruitment and clearing
and whatever might be saying, "Oh, well, we need to keep
bums on seats and show that we can function as a viable institution."
If you are broadly happy about the system, are you worried that
nevertheless we are creating more, if not defaulters, people who
are giving rise to concern?
Mr Williams: One of the sets of
figures I have is that which talks about the award of firsts and
upper seconds according to type of institution. I am hesitant
about saying this because it does give the impression that there
is, if you like, a league table of types of institution and the
degree classification system is almost a self-fulfilling approach.
It does show, however, that there is a clear differentiation between,
if you like, groups of institutions in the different groupings,
self-created groupings, the clubs, and that there is only one
group, I think it is fair to say, which in the last five years
has shown any major increase in the award of firsts and upper
seconds. The others have remained pretty static.
Q97 Dr Evan Harris: Which one is
Mr Williams: That is the 1994
group, and there is quite a differentiation between them.
Q98 Dr Evan Harris: Let us say that
universities were dependent for their income and therefore their
viability on the number of students that they accepted, and therefore,
indirectly, the number of students who applied, and that there
was evidence that students applied to those universities where
they thought for any given standard they had a better chance of
getting a good degree classification, and there was on the internet
information available that told them which was the university
which gave them the higher chance, all other things being equal,
because it gave more upper second and first class degrees, if
all those things were in placeand I believe they arewould
that not be bound to influence the behaviour of universities?
It is bound to.
Mr Williams: It might well do.
I am not sure I am necessarily the right person to ask that. I
would say, however, that we would wish to see, as we undertake
our audits, how institutions manage their admissions to ensure
that there is not, if you like, one of those forces negatively
influencing the other.
Q99 Dr Evan Harris: Do you look at
that or is that someone else's job to look at?
Mr Williams: It is one of the
things we can look at. You must appreciate in our audits there
are a number of things we always look at and there are other things
we look at if we see reasons for asking those questions. We cannot
cover everything, or we would be there all day every day, so we
have to be selective in what we look at. But it is an area we
are certainly able to look at, partly because it is an area covered
by our code of practice on admissions. Our code of practice on
admissions offers a reference point to institutions as to how
they should manage their admissions process.